- The legal and illegal wildlife trade continues to escalate in tandem with increasing Chinese investment in South America’s Amazon region, mirroring a similar China trafficking trend that devastated elephants, rhinos and pangolins in Africa.
- Hundreds of Amazon species are being shipped to Asia, principally China, in unsustainable numbers, ranging from jaguars to reptiles, turtles and parrots to songbirds, poison dart frogs and tropical fish. The damage to the Amazon biome could be profound, researchers say.
- These species are sought out as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, used in the fashion industry, and sold live as pets. Online commerce is booming, too.
- The growing crisis is galvanizing efforts to build regional coordination, with agreements to strengthen laws, enforcement, and share intelligence. Banks and transport companies have committed to help prevent trafficking. With strong intervention now, experts say, it’s still early enough to turn the tide.
With ever more frequent reports of illegal wildlife trade flowing out of the Amazon, I flew to Iquitos, Peru, in 2017 with a photographer and filmmaker to investigate.
Our team quickly learned that jaguars were a readily available commodity in this small city, a rainforest gateway on the banks of the Amazon River. Sellers displayed rosette-spotted jaguar skins and ocelot pelts in at least a dozen locales, including the Belén market, outdoor craft stands, small shops and even at tourist attractions. They also openly sold taxidermied jaguar heads and jewelry fashioned from teeth and claws, sometimes embellished with semiprecious stones.
Some vendors were cavalier about the trade. Many were cautious. Jaguars then, as now, are a protected species: poaching, trafficking or selling them or their parts is illegal under Peruvian law and an international treaty. But despite that prohibition, authorities at the Loreto provincial environmental agency showed us stacks of confiscated cat skins. They told us that trafficking in many species spiked in recent years, and crackdowns had driven some trade into the shadows –– but clearly not all.
To learn more about supply and demand, we boarded a traditional peque, or little boat, for a short ride up the brown, muddy Amazon to the Momón River, a small tributary. There, we spoke with members of the Boras community, an Indigenous group. They lived deep in the rainforest but regularly came to Iquitos to sell handicrafts to tourists and perform traditional dances, garbed in cat skins. They regularly hunted jaguars, they said. One elder revealed that Chinese buyers came to them two years before, in 2015, seeking to buy teeth and skins of the so-called American tiger, and had regularly placed orders since then.
This single encounter offers a hyper local example of how an expanding Asian market, tied to escalating Chinese financial investment, has created an economic incentive for local poachers and traffickers, posing a grave threat to wildlife in the Amazon Basin. It’s not a new trend: a similar pattern unfolded in the early 2000s when Chinese mining, logging and infrastructure companies moved into Africa, sparking catastrophic elephant, rhino and pangolin poaching.
Unfortunately, trafficking in the Amazon has only escalated since my 2017 visit. Colleagues investigating the Peruvian trade earlier this year found threatened species readily available for sale. This month, a new report from WWF and the Zoological Society of London sounded an urgent biodiversity alarm for the region. It found that Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Amazon, suffered a 94% decline in average wildlife population size over the last 48 years — the steepest drop seen in any region in the world. While deforestation is a leading cause, trafficking also contributed to the crisis.
The Amazon-China connection
China now dominates commerce with South America: Its trade on the continent topped $450 billion in 2021. That influx of cash, Chinese companies and Chinese labor has catalyzed the flow of threatened IUCN Red List animals (along with legally traded species) streaming from the Amazon to China and Southeast Asia. The demand is broad, including everything from jaguars to reptiles and turtles and parrots and songbirds to poison dart frogs and tropical fish. These species are sought out as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, used in the fashion industry, and sold live as pets. Online commerce is booming, too.
Traders fall into two categories, says Juliana Machado Ferreira, executive director of FREELAND Brasil, a conservation nonprofit and co-author of a 2020 report on Brazilian wildlife smuggling. “There are the workers who come here and want to bring a gift home,” she says, but she notes that the big traders are high-level criminal organizations.
Elizabeth Bennett, vice president for species conservation at the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), was among the first to sound the alarm at the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London. The Chinese presence had sparked what she characterized as “an explosion of trans-Pacific organized crime [in Latin America] including trafficking in people, drugs, and weapons, as well as wildlife.”
The shadow of criminality runs deep here, a Loreto environmental officer told us, turning much of the Amazon into “a lawless frontier.”
A gigantic transnational underworld industry
The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, spans 5.4 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles), an area two-thirds the size of the United States. More than half falls within Brazil’s borders; the rest spills across Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
It’s one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions, home to about a quarter of all terrestrial animal and plant species, and more fish species than any other river system. Some exist only here. More than 12,000 Amazon species are protected under an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which limits or prohibits commercial cross-border trade. But CITES hasn’t stopped the traffickers.
The illicit wildlife trade ranks as the world’s fourth most lucrative criminal enterprise, worth up to $23 billion a year, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. With little enforcement and light penalties, it’s a low-risk, high-profit business. Today, routes out of the Amazon are well established, with well-worn pathways serving as conduits for all sorts of criminality. Eight Amazon countries are top cocaine traders, with illegal logging, mining, and arms trafficking money flooding them — helping to build underworld infrastructure for the wildlife trade.
The export of animals from the Amazon Basin isn’t new. An established trade pipeline shipped untold numbers of exotic birds from the Amazon to the U.S. and Europe until a few decades ago, when import laws changed. Then, some 15 years ago, came the first influx of Chinese investment. More than $140 billion in loans from state-owned Chinese banks backed road and construction companies, mining and logging interests, and their workers flooded into the Amazon region. WCS estimates that the wildlife trade between South America and Asia doubled over the last decade.
These activities opened forests to poachers and endangered ecosystems. A 2020 study estimated that a quarter of these Chinese-led projects are ravaging Amazon protected areas, while a third encroach on Indigenous lands.
Animal shipments flow to Asian countries, particularly China (the world’s largest consumer of wildlife) and Vietnam, says Ferreira. They are sold live or in pieces, acquired as pets by hobbyists, as trophies and jewelry; used to decorate high-fashion clothing; coveted by collectors; and consumed as purported medicines or exotic cuisine. Rare, high-end items are flaunted as status symbols.
Numbers out of Peru offer a peek into the magnitude of this enterprise. Officials confiscated 79,000 threatened animals between 2000 and 2017, as well as tens of thousands of animal parts. About 10 were poached for every animal seized, experts said at the time. The COVID-19 pandemic interfered with both enforcement and research, so current trafficking statistics are not available.
A burgeoning threat
The first reports of trafficking surfaced in 2003. Organized crime networks in Suriname were orchestrating sales of jaguar teeth and claws to Chinese buyers. With few wild tigers left in Asia, jaguar parts are sold as Chinese medicine tiger substitutes, according to WCS. Soon, meat (a delicacy) and paste (made by boiling a carcass for five days and then used as a purported treatment for rheumatism and lagging sexual vigor) also became hot commodities.
Next, poaching surged in Bolivia. Local people, loggers and gold miners began killing jaguars and keeping their parts for “when the Chinese pass by,” says Esteban Payán, a biologist and member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cat Specialist Group. Some buyers began placing orders with hunters — a practice we later encountered with the Boras community in Peru.
A radio station, Red Patria Nueva, broadcast an ad in 2017 for someone seeking “tiger” (a.k.a. jaguar) fangs, “preferably large and clean.” A jaguar’s fangs, claws, pelt and genitals can sell for up to $3,000 in Bolivia. That’s orders of magnitude higher than a normal month’s wages, and a fraction of the price they command in Asia.
Bolivia has filed 57 jaguar smuggling cases since 2014, with two additional seizures in China. However, the hundreds of fangs confiscated in recent years represent just a fraction of the trade, and jaguars are just one of the many Amazon species targeted by poachers. In a 2018 bust, Bolivian police confiscated parts from some 54 animal species, including snakes and armadillos, arresting two Chinese nationals and a Bolivian, according to an IUCN report. As of five years ago, WCS identified 383 animal species trafficked from Peru. A 2021 study focusing strictly on Iquitos’s Belen market counted 205 species.
Animals are transported in every way imaginable, under wretched conditions. They’re crammed together without food or water, in extreme temperatures, barely able to breathe. Smugglers stuff them into wheel wells, water bottles, plastic bags. They duct-tape eggs or small animals under clothing or conceal them in luggage. They’re transported by motorcycle, truck, car, plane, train, shipping container, international courier or via the mail. WCS’s Yovana Murillo estimates that most, up to 90%, die during capture or in transit.
Wildlife pulled from forests and rivers
While the true scale of any illegal activity is unknown, a 2017 analysis for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) offered a peek into the changing Amazon trade. Known quantities were staggering. Back then, 12,000 live parrots from some 50 species were exported each year. Macaws are in high demand, says Pauline Verheij, a wildlife and forest crime expert at the nonprofit EcoJust. In one case, a Chinese woman was detained in Taiwan carrying 49 hyacinth macaw eggs in a heated carry-on bag, moving them for her uncle, a trafficker who smuggled birds from Paraguay to China.
Verheij notes that Suriname and Guyana “stand out when it comes to exports of live, wild-sourced birds, reptiles and amphibians.” Spectacled bears are also in the crosshairs, killed for their gall bladders, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine as a purported cure for numerous afflictions. A single gall bladder may sell for $150 — five times the average monthly wage in Ecuador. Bear paws, considered a delicacy, fetch $20 each.
There’s also a thriving Asian market for aquarium fish, says FREELAND’s Ferreira. As of 2017, Peru’s Loreto region alone exported $2.7 million in fish, principally to China (especially through Hong Kong) and to Japan. The porous Colombia-Peru-Brazil tri-border area is a trafficking hotspot. There, fishermen net aquaria favorites and middlemen falsify paperwork, designating them as captive-bred specimens. Some move protected species to Peru, where restrictions are looser.
In last year’s Operation Horus trafficking sweep, Brazilian authorities seized 7,300 ornamental freshwater fish found on board a boat in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon. Some 50 plastic tubs held shiny red-and-blue cardinal tetras, black ghost knifefish, iridescent pencilfish and more. The haul was valued at $36,000. In 2019, as part of Operation Killifish, Brazil’s federal police intercepted 32 packages of killifish eggs, including threatened varieties, bound for Asia, Europe and the U.S.
The Convention on Biological Diversity report tallied up to 30,000 arapaima shipped to Hong Kong each year. Also known as pirarucu, these are among the world’s largest freshwater fish, displayed in tanks and ponds. Another favorite among collectors, the huge, glistening silver arowana, which evokes the dragons depicted in Asian folklore as it undulates through the water, is believed to have magical powers to keep evil spirits away and attract good luck, happiness and wealth. It’s nearly impossible to gauge how much numbers have diminished, or the current conservation status, of these and other fish that live in these murky brown rivers.
Latin America has also become the latest supplier of turtles and tortoises to China. Once eaten only at rare holiday feasts, they’ve become an affordable, casual meal. These reptiles are also a traditional medicine ingredient and popular pets. “Turtles and tortoises are currently harvested illegally by the hundreds … and smuggled out through the Amazon River via Peru and other countries,” says Payán. In one 2019 seizure, Bolivian environmental police received a tip from a parcel company about three suspicious packages. Inside, they found plastic bags filled with 1,359 pointy-nosed mata mata turtles, odd-looking creatures that resemble a pile of debris; they sell as pets for large sums. In Peru, a decades-long conservation project allows local communities to sell a percentage of hatchery-raised yellow-spotted river turtles, or taricaya, and release the rest. But more are being sold than what hatcheries can produce. From 2010 to 2018, Hong Kong imported 1,802,369 yellow-spotted river turtles, says WCS. That sparked investigations into trafficking and money laundering. One Latin American exporter’s account held an unexplained $6 million from China.
Many other Amazon species are smuggled to Asia: frogs, lizards, anoles, caimans, monkeys, iguanas, songbirds and more. Chinese nationals are also driving large-scale hunting for bushmeat. One example, revealed in Facebook posts, exposed crocodiles being killed “at the hands of the China Railway Construction Corporation.” The company is building Bolivia’s 595-kilometer (370-mile) Vía Rurrenabaque highway. In a 2019 IUCN report, Bolivian biologist Nuno Soares divulged that Chinese workers hired local people to hunt everything from deer, peccaries, armadillos, tapirs and monkeys, to turtles and snakes.
A lucrative trade, fueled by corruption
Tough terrain and porous borders make illegal shipments to China easy. “Everything about the forest — its size, how difficult it is to move through, how hot and humid it is — makes law enforcement that much harder,” says Ferreira.
It’s a problem that’s plagued enforcement for decades. A Bolivian Forestry Police officer described the difficulty to BBC reporters: “We can arrive on foot and [the traders] will leave in helicopters or light aircraft, or by boat down the rivers. We know they are doing this but what can we do to stop it?”
An investigation published by the nonprofit Earth League International (ELI) and the IUCN in 2020 reported that “criminals operate established routes and sometimes bribe high-ranking police officers.” Other investigations have found corruption at nearly every level, with government, law enforcement, police and customs officials, and even prosecutors under investigation, according to Mongabay.
The ELI/IUCN report identified at least three organized transnational criminal organizations operating in Bolivia, including the Putian Gang, a South American offshoot of the Chinese Fujian Mafia. But Colombia has the strongest criminal structures in South America, forged during decades of civil war.
It works like this: Middlemen contact hunters and transporters, placing orders. They set up regional animal collection centers, handle bribes, and move their wild merchandise, dead or alive, from rainforests to poorly secured borders, and on to airports and seaports.
Exporters employ a wide repertoire of tactics to smuggle banned species, with large shipments requiring more high-level organization and assistance. Smugglers intersperse threatened or wild-caught animals amid those that are legally traded or captive raised. They send animals with couriers, collude with airline or shipping company staff to switch boxes post-inspection, or conceal animals or their parts in secret compartments inside shipping containers. Traffickers often use incorrect, altered or forged documents to facilitate transport.
Criminal networks and illicit entrepreneurs frequently use front companies to expedite lucrative overseas shipments. For example, a 2021 investigation revealed that at least two of Loreto’s 20-plus licensed exporters are shell companies used by traffickers. Most of the others have been busted for illegal trade, yet still remain in business.
InSight Crime quotes a former Brazilian official on the highly profitable aquarium trade: “Exporters could make up to $10 million without any of the fish they send abroad being tracked.”
While criminals are well funded, enforcers aren’t: “Many airports don’t even have an X-ray [machine] for the luggage,” says Freeland’s Ferreira, and as of 2019, there were just 50 wildlife officers in Bolivia to protect an area twice the size of Spain.
WCS’s Reuter notes that few customs inspectors have the extensive training or knowledge needed to recognize the huge numbers of species trafficked from the Amazon Basin. Animals pulled from the wild that are butchered, fashioned into jewelry, or sold as very young animals (such as miniscule, translucent fish hatchlings, a fraction of an inch long) can be nearly impossible for any but experts to identify.
Those few traffickers apprehended generally get a slap on the wrist — a fine — says Adrian Reuter, Latin America regional wildlife trafficking coordinator for WCS. He adds that “even if it’s in the legislation, you won’t go to jail, or you can find your way around it.”
Trafficking kingpins typically avoid arrest, with “the war being waged at the wrong level, according to Interpol. “Relentlessly pursuing the ‘army of ants’ — the individual poachers, transporters, corrupt customs officials — has little impact on the global trade in illicit environmental products.”
The trade continues to escalate, says Payán, the cat biologist.
Addressing the threat
Wildlife trafficking has been elevated to the level of a serious national security issue in a few Amazon nations, including Colombia. But progress remains elusive — and battling it is dangerous for law enforcement and local people. In Iquitos, officers told us that they have been surrounded by hostile vendors when they entered outdoor markets. Brazil and Colombia were the deadliest places on Earth for environmental defenders from 2012 to 2020, with 317 and 290 killings respectively. In 2021, 138 activists were killed in Colombia.
“It is very important for the countries to recognize that wildlife trafficking is organized crime … so the same tools can be used to counter it,” says Reuter.
High-level regional conferences have begun this process. In 2019, 20 Latin American countries signed the Lima Declaration, resolving to fight wildlife crime with stronger laws, better enforcement and shared intelligence. At a second conference, in April 2022, banks and transport companies signed commitments to help prevent trafficking.
This fledgling international cooperation is critical, Ferreira says. “Nature doesn’t know political boundaries, and certainly neither do poachers.”
There are other efforts to build regional coordination, including the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, formed by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and Interpol’s I-24/7 global law enforcement communication system. Earlier this year, Colombia and Peru agreed to strengthen the fight against transnational organized crime. The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, a group of companies and conservation organizations, is collaborating to shut down online marketplaces. Ferreira is part of a new special investigations group to counter jaguar trafficking.
The potential damage to the Amazon biome could be profoundly far reaching. Ferreira calls the black market wildlife trade “one of the biggest threats to biodiversity.” In her work in Brazil, she’s seen firsthand how “mining” wildlife disrupts interwoven biological systems, with devastating collateral damage. “It can collapse the ecosystems we rely on,” she says.
For now, there’s still hope. Experts note that a growing segment of Chinese society favors increased wildlife protections, and it’s still early enough to turn the tide. “We haven’t reached a crisis point akin to what is occurring in Asia and Africa,” Elizabeth Bennett at WCS says, adding that “we might if we don’t act.”
Banner image: Jaguar skin for sale at the Belen market in Iquitos, Peru. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic.
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