Animal Trafficking, A Billion-dollar Business
By Mario Osava *
Brazil is one of the leading sources of contraband fauna. More than 12 million animals are believed to be smuggled out of the country each year to feed a lucrative international market.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Trafficking in wild animals in the Americas, a global business worth 20 billion dollars annually, is no longer the concern of just a handful of countries.
An information and cooperation network to fight the illegal trade in wild animals and plants is being constructed in South America, where the high level of biodiversity is a magnet for traffickers. The roots of the network were established in July at the first South American Conference on the Illegal Wild Fauna Trade, a gathering of 150 experts and authorities to Brasilia.
The conference, organized by the Brazilian National Network Against Wild Animal Trafficking (RENCTAS), was also promoted by the US State Department. Washington's participation came in response to a worrisome dynamic: the close ties between fauna and drug traffickers.
Of the 350 or 400 rings of animal smugglers active in Brazil, 30 to 40 percent maintain links with the drug trade, Dener Giovanini, RENCTAS director and chair of the July conference, told Tierramérica.
The South American network will be based in Brasilia and coordinated by RENCTAS, a group that is to serve as a model for the other countries. Participating in this effort are non-governmental organizations (NGOs), environmental authorities, police, the business community and individuals concerned about the issue.
The joint activities of these groups include setting up a database with lists of the traffickers active in each country, environmental education campaigns and the exchange of information. Traffic, an Ecuador-based project backed by international NGOs, is to support RENCTAS in designing the South American network and in its implementation.
Animal trafficking thrives due to public tolerance and follows the implacable logic of the market. The rarest species fetch the highest prices and are, as a result, the most hunted, thus aggravating their risk of extinction.
The 'arara-azul-de-lear', a blue macaw, one of Brazil's most threatened bird species, costs up to 60,000 dollars in Europe, North America and Asia, the regions where demand for wild animals is highest.
Fauna trafficking is extremely depredatory as only one out of 10 animals taken illegally from their natural environment reach the final buyer alive. The clandestine methods used to transport the animals - to evade customs agents - is most often the cause of death.
Few people consider it a crime to collect beautiful birds or monkeys taken from a natural habitat in a distant country. Keeping rare animals in a private zoo is a desire of many wealthy individuals. Consequently, this type of contraband enjoys a certain level of impunity.
As in the case of drug trafficking, the principal suppliers are developing countries while the demand is concentrated in the industrialized world.
Wealthy countries must halt ''the unsustainable consumption of exotic fauna,'' but at the same time it is essential to provide economic alternatives for the poor communities that capture wild animals as a livelihood, said Brazil's Environment minister, José Sarney Filho.
Brazil is one of the top sources of smuggled fauna, representing 15 to 20 percent of the world total, calculates RENCTAS chief Giovanini. More than 12 million animals are illegally taken out of the country each year.
This illicit business is intensifying the risk of extinction weighing on 208 animal species in Brazil, warns Sarney Filho.
The international market is stimulated by individuals seeking rare animals to add to their collections, but it also involves the pharmaceutical industry, which purchases spiders and snakes, to use their venom in producing new medicines.
This is one facet of what is known as biopiracy, which pays a few cents per animal in the poor countries providing the fauna, and feeds the lucrative pharmaceutical business.
In addition to the demand for live species, there is big business in pelts, feathers, organs and other parts, which further damages biodiversity, commented Giovanini. A collection of butterfly wings, for example, can fetch 3,000 dollars in China.
The internal market in Brazil is very active as well. Illegal fairs for trading wild animals take place regularly in some Brazilian cities. This year the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA), the national environmental policing authority, has stepped up efforts to close down such marketplaces.
But the IBAMA inspectors in Sao Paulo have acknowledged their impotence. The institute does not even have the space to house the animals seized in one operation.
One alternative to trafficking is the captive breeding of certain animals, a business that promises high profits. The toucan, a bird of lively colors and a long, thick beak, can be sold for 7,000 dollars in the United States, says zoo technician Gilberto Schickler, who is drawing up projects for raising birds in captivity, which would be regulated by IBAMA.
But the most sought-after birds on the global market are the psitacids, in other words, parrots and 'araros', Schickler told Tierramérica. But the market for songbirds, which are numerous in Brazil, is rapidly expanding. A 'curió', with its violin-like song, can cost as much as a new car, he said.
Reproduction of ornamental and songbirds is already a reality in the United States and Europe, and many come from contraband parents. But Schickler stressed that the countries of origin for these species have the advantage of appropriate environment and the birds' natural foods.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.