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 SPECIAL REPORTS: ENVIRONMENT
Tuesday 9 September 2003

 

Animal Trafficking - A Cruel Billion-Dollar Business

Francesca Colombo*



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 multicoloured birds.

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 monkeys.

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 trafficking.

"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 activists' estimates.

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 Tierramérica.

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 Protection

Traffickers utilise the same channels as legal importers to transport the animals from Latin America to Europe: direct flights and trans-Atlantic ships.

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 compartments.

"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 flights.

"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" Guzmán.

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 Giovanini.

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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