Trafficking - A Cruel Billion-Dollar
MILAN, Italy, (Tierramérica) - At
least 110,000 exotic birds, most from
Latin America, brighten the homes of
Italian families with their song and
their colours. They are the few
survivors of the cruel and lucrative
business of international trafficking
in wild animals.
In Italy and throughout the rest of
Europe, lizards, turtles and small
monkeys are sold as pets, and crafts
are made using turtle shells, whale
barbs and the feathers of
The jungles of Bolivia, Ecuador,
Colombia and Brazil, and other fragile
ecosystems of Central America, Mexico,
Argentina and Paraguay, have become
the main sources of wild species
trafficking to the European Union, the
world's leading destination for
reptile skins, parrots, and boa and
python snakes, and the second for
Africa and Asia are also major
suppliers of wild plant and animal
species for the global market.
Although legal trade in wildlife is
regulated by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
(CITES), an estimated one-third of the
global sales of 25 billion dollars a
year is illegal -- an illicit business
surpassed only by arms and drugs
"There is enormous demand for
wild species in Europe. The market
varies according to the fashion and
customs of each country. Italy loves
and cares for birds, and has always
been involved in that trade, as have
Spain, Netherlands and Belgium,"
Massimiliano Rocco, director of the
watchdog group Traffic International
in Italy, told Tierramérica.
Some 35,000 animals are brought to
Italy each year, among them toucans,
parrots, iguanas, crocodiles, small
monkeys, and spiders. One of every
three is smuggled into the country,
report environmental groups.
The trade generates profits of 500
million dollars a year, according to
In Spain, the rage for exotic species
is such that collectors will pay
anywhere from 500 to one million
dollars for a large macaw.
"The illegal trafficking of
animals coming from throughout Latin
America has Spain as its main entry
point. From there they are re-exported
to the rest of the region,"
Miguel Angel Valladares, spokesman for
the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in
Spain, said in a conversation with
More than 38 million wild animals are
captured annually in Brazil, reports
the National Network to Fight Wild
Animal Trafficking (RENCTAS, for its
Portuguese initials). But a staggering
90 percent die in the process of being
caught or during transport.
Of the survivors, 40 percent -- or
1.52 million animals -- are exported,
among them "the most rare and
endangered species," says RENCTAS
coordinator Dener Giovanini.
And local hunters earn little for
capturing these animals. A Melro bird
(Gnorimopsar chopi) can be purchased
for 27 dollars at the street markets
in southern Brazil, but are sold for
2,500 dollars in Europe. The pink
macaw (Ara macao) costs 15 dollars in
the jungles of Brazil, but fetches as
much as 2,000 dollars in Italy.
Signs are that the business is
growing. From 1997 to 2000, Italian
police conducted a thousand searches
and seized 150,000 animals -- dead and
alive -- arriving from Latin America,
Africa and Eastern Europe.
Last year in Mexico, more than 206,828
animals and plants intended for
illegal sale were confiscated by
authorities. That figure is 110 times
higher than the total for 2001,
reports that country's Federal
Prosecutor for Environmental
Traffickers utilise the same channels
as legal importers to transport the
animals from Latin America to Europe:
direct flights and trans-Atlantic
But unlike the legal traders, they
falsify certificates, triangulate
routes, and camouflage their live
merchandise, mixing them among legal
shipments to confuse the authorities.
Or they use boxes with hidden
"The channels for legal and
illegal trade are separated by a thin
line. In one same cage you can find
species with and without certificates.
For example, venomous snakes might be
shipped with turtles, and when they
pass through customs nobody dares
verify the contents of the box,"
says Ciro Troiano, an activist with
Italy's LAV, an animal rights group.
The journey from one continent to
another is often a terrible ordeal for
the live cargo.
Toucans with their beaks taped shut,
parrots stuffed into stockings, birds
that are drugged or whose eyes are
perforated so that they will not sing
in reaction to the light are just some
of the passengers in these cruel
"The airlines don't comply with
international rules. During transport,
30 to 60 percent of the species
die," says Giovanni Guadagna,
also of LAV.
The panorama is complicated by the
fact that international smuggling
mafias and drug traffickers from Latin
America, Asia and Europe are involved
in the wild animal species trade.
In mid-August, the Italian police
discovered in Palermo -- the cradle of
organised crime -- an illegal farm for
raising dogs for dogfights, as well as
wild hogs and racehorses. And they
found 300 Latin American turtles.
In Brazil, a parliamentary commission
has documented the connection between
animal trafficking and the trafficking
of drugs and precious stones, says
RENCTAS activist Giovanini.
And in Mexico, numerous drug lords
have been involved in species
trafficking. Several zoos continue to
house a portion of the 70 species
seized in 1993 from the ranch of drug
trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo"
Species trafficking is considered a
crime in most countries, but penalties
vary: from six months to six years in
prison in Mexico, five years in Spain,
and two years -- which can be extended
to 12 if there are mafia connections
-- in Italy.
Environmentalists in Brazil complain
that the legislation itself is
"soft" and is too rarely
enforced. "If someone is
arrested, he pays a bond of 100
dollars and is released. The penalties
are alternative punishments, doing
community work," explained
In 2002, 17 people were indicted in
Mexico on animal trafficking charges
and paid fines of 580,000 dollars.
"Trafficking in species is mostly
tolerated by society, and that means
that the perpetrator is not pursued by
the authorities as much as drugs or
arms traffickers," says Oscar
Moctezuma, director of the Mexican
non-governmental group Naturalia.
(* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica
contributor. With reporting by IPS
correspondents Mario Osava/Brazil and
Diego Cevallos/Mexico. Originally
published Aug. 30 by Latin American
newspapers that are part of the
Tierramérica network. Tierramérica
is a specialised news service produced
by IPS with the backing of the United
Nations Development Programme and the
United Nations Environment Programme.)
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