The taricaya turtle conservation program in northern Peru has been heralded as bringing an endangered species back from the brink of extinction while protecting millions of hectares of rainforest from poachers and loggers. Yet investigators suspect it may also have created a multi-million-dollar wildlife trafficking business.

The images are inspirational: thousands upon thousands of tiny yellow-spotted river turtles – known locally as taricaya – squirming out of baskets, wriggling across artificial beaches and slipping into the waterways of the Amazon jungle. Until the taricaya conservation projects took off, these waterways had been emptied out of these turtles and other species targeted by poachers for their meat or eggs, locals say. But today, they are again rich with life.

On the surface, the program, in which local communities are permitted to sell a portion of the turtles they protect, has struck the elusive balance between conserving the rainforest and meeting the needs of the poverty-plagued communities that live there – a balance key to guaranteeing the long-term future of the Amazon. Millions of turtles have been released into the wild, while jungle communities have received desperately needed income and investment.

*This is the fourth chapter of a four-part series on wildlife trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Download the complete PDF here.

However, the inspirational images do not tell the whole story. The projects are dogged by allegations they are used as cover for trafficking turtles, and the exporter that has been the driving force behind the trade is currently under investigation for money laundering after authorities discovered millions of dollars from China unaccounted for and flowing through her businesses.

The taricaya business is not unique in operating under the shadow of suspected criminality. Trafficking is rife in Peru’s tropical fish and shark fin industries and is suspected wherever wildlife is exported. In a country where the influence of organized crime and corruption runs deep, attempts at legal, sustainable exploitation of wildlife have created what are likely the country’s most lucrative eco-trafficking rackets.

A Promising Conservation Program

The taricaya conservation programs launched in the 1990s, when environmental groups began organizing local communities in the Pacaya Samiria national reserve: 20,800 square kilometers of rainforest in the Peruvian department of Loreto, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.

The environmentalists showed the jungle residents how to collect the eggs from riverside beaches and replant them to more secure artificial beaches, and how then to care for the eggs until they hatched. More importantly, they showed how doing so could not only benefit the environment but also the communities themselves: taricaya meat and eggs are an important part of the local diet, but the turtles had become scarce due to over-hunting.

A taricaya turtle. Photo: Francisco Laso

The first grupos de manejo, or management groups, were formed in 1994, but it was not until 2004 that the state approved the plans that laid out the groups’ conservation commitments and in return allowed them to sell a proportion of each season’s turtles. Opening up the trade to commercialization led to a surge in conservation efforts, and since then, over three million taricaya have been released into the wild.

There are currently 43 officially recognized management groups, generating nearly $1 million a year for the 492 families that work in them. The project has also spread to several other conservation areas in the region.

The groups not only collect and protect taricaya eggs, they also help monitor control points and lead patrols to protect the reserves from poachers and illegal loggers. In return, they are allowed to sell a quota of the eggs – usually between 40 and 60 percent.

SEE ALSO: Can Crocodile and Turtle Farms Reduce Mexico’s Eco-Trafficking?

For the agency that works with them, the National Service for Areas Protected by the State (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas por el Estado – Sernanp), it is a clear win-win.

“I conserve two million hectares, not just for Loreto, but for the good of the whole world, and they obtain an economic benefit for managing resources and preventing deforestation,” said Enrique Neyra, the head of Sernanp in Pacaya Samiria.

However, for the conservation groups to make money from their work, one further link in the chain was needed – a market. The solution to this problem came in the form of exotic pet distributors in Hong Kong.

In 2008, Peru exported just 11,832 taricaya, 8,762 of them from the reserves, according to the records of the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (Servicio Nacional Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre – Serfor). However, by 2017, this had risen to 779,024, of which 633,445 came from the reserves.

Almost all of them were sold to Asia – initially to Hong Kong and later to China. From Hong Kong, they were sold to other parts of the world, with export records showing shipments from Hong Kong to Kuwait, Japan, the United States, Indonesia, South Korea, Italy, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The driving force behind this export explosion was one woman, Milagros Ferreyra Ahuanari.

A poor girl from a jungle community, Ferreyra began working in exotic fish-trading as a teenager, traveling around Loreto’s river communities, collecting arowana fish and selling them to aquarium dealers. By 2007, she had set up her own fish trading company, MF Tropical Fish, and began exporting arowana and other species, mainly to clients in Hong Kong.

Sensing an opportunity in the taricaya management plans, she convinced her Asian contacts to front her the capital to invest in the business. She traveled to the communities to speak to the management groups, and backed up her talk of export potential with cash advances and investments in the communities.

“Nobody would commit to buying our taricaya. She is the only one that wanted to take a chance on them,” said William Maldonado, who set up one of the original management groups in 1994.

Ferreyra convinced them, she says, because she understood them.

“I have lived in one of these communities, I am from one of these communities, I understand their needs,” Ferreyra told InSight Crime during a 2019 field investigation in Loreto.

She also had a vision for these communities, a vision of what she calls “participatory conservation.”

“What we are doing is opening a window for development while conserving the forest and the animals,” she said.

A Thriving, Questionable Business-Model

With the money from Asia pouring in, Loreto celebrated a rare success story for both business and the rainforest. However, suspicions were building that not everything was as it seemed.

As the number of management groups approved grew, irregularities began to creep into the plans, according to an environmentalist involved in conservation whose work with management groups previously saw him register as an exporter of taricaya. He wanted to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions.

Newly released taricaya turtles at Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Photo: Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

“They have created management plans in communities that don’t even have a hundred nests, but these plans are for 5,000 nests,” he said.

Then there was the near zero mortality rate. No matter how carefully they are looked after, a significant percentage of each season’s new taricaya population will die. But in the registries, none ever did.

“All of those that die, they are replacing with illegal ones,” said Toni Mori, head of Loreto’s Regional Environmental Authority (Autoridad Regional Ambiental – ARA).

And then there were the two criaderos, or hatcheries – one of which was set up by Ferreyra – where hundreds of thousands more taricaya have been bred in captivity. The local authorities charged with monitoring these sites noticed the birth registries did not fit with normal taricaya breeding patterns.

“A lot of times the quantity of births they were registering were not credible,” said Dustin Silva, head of ARA in the previous Loreto government, whose term finished at the end of 2018. “They can say a certain quantity were born there, but really, how can we prove that they were born in the hatchery?”

The reason, they suspected, was because the hatcheries had also become laundries where trafficked turtles were blended into the legal supply chain using falsified birth certificates.

“There is a sale of babies to the hatcheries, which launder this activity,” said Silva.

However, it was only when Peru’s National Superintendence of Customs and Tax Administration (Superintendencia Nacional de Aduanas y de Administración Tributaria – SUNAT) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera – UIF) took an interest in the taricaya trade that investigations got serious.

A UIF investigation, seen by InSight Crime, looked at taricaya exports between 2014 and 2017, 70 percent of which were carried out by two companies owned by Ferreyra, MF Tropical Fish and MF Turtles and Tropical Fish.

Over the period, the companies registered exports with a Free on Board (FOB) value of $6,179,722, with taricaya turtles accounting for over 70 percent of the total. However, the companies’ accounts show they received $10,305,096 in payments from China – a difference of over $4.1 million. Not only this, but Ferreyra’s personal accounts also showed transfers from China of a further $2 million. 

As a result of the report, authorities opened a money laundering investigation into Ferreyra and froze her personal and business accounts.

However, the source of the unjustified income remains a mystery. Investigations into wildlife trafficking by financial agencies such as the UIF and the SUNAT have repeatedly hit the same wall: a lack of information from the local authorities charged with monitoring the trade.

There are, of course, theories. The environmentalist, for instance, believes it can be explained by the gap between the number of turtles declared on export forms and the actual numbers of taricaya packed in a container. Verifying that these coincide is a near-impossible task for the small teams of officials responsible.

“There are depositories where both the legal and illegal turtles go, which is where they should be counted,” said the environmentalist. “But you’ve got a company with over 300,000 turtles and one or two officials, who is going to count that quantity?”

It wasn’t only in the export sector where the red flags kept appearing. As the taricaya trade took off, authorities made seizures of baby taricaya in unprecedented quantities: 2,500 on their way to the animal trafficking transit hub of Pucallpa; hundreds more seized on route to the Ecuador border.

Such quantities were far beyond what authorities had seen in the past. Between 2013 and 2015 in Loreto, for example, there was a total of just 142 specimens seized, government documents show. And local authorities describe making seizures of, at most, 50 adult turtles or a handful of babies, but never hundreds or thousands.

There is only one possible source for such large quantities of baby taricayas, says the environmentalist: the management groups.

“The groups liberate them in large quantities, but these babies don’t leave quickly. They are in the same place for two or three days,” he said. “So that is where the groups themselves, or other communities or family members, go in and start recapturing them.”

The owner of the only other taricaya hatchery, Santiago Alves, is also adamant the management groups are supplying the traffickers.

“They don’t release anything because they catch them and sell them,” he told InSight Crime. “Everything is a business.”

SEE ALSO: Fake Turtle Eggs With GPS Trackers Seek Rollout Across Latin America

Alves alleges that one of the groups offered to sell him 30,000 eggs, and he says that traffickers from around the country come to the reserves to buy turtles.

“From here, taricaya are smuggled all over Peru – to Lima, to Chiclayo, even to other countries,” he said.

However, Alves himself has also fallen under suspicion, with industry insiders claiming it is well known among fishermen that he will purchase turtles they collect – an allegation he dismisses as “pure fiction.”

His critics, however, add that he also has a dispute with Ferreryra and the other principal taricaya exporter – a company called Acuatrade – whom he blames for shutting him out of the export market and driving down the prices for his hatchery.

He complains that Ferreyra and Acuatrade have seized total control over the market by monopolizing supply from the management groups.

“I don’t know what privilege these people have to be the ones to sell them and take them from the reserves,” he said.

Ferreyra, meanwhile, fiercely denies any wrongdoing.

“We are not committing any crime,” she said to InSight Crime. “The only thing I do is work with communities to exploit wildlife legally.”

The accounting discrepancies, Ferreyra says, can be explained away by freight costs and advances from her clients. She also dismissed concerns about the hatcheries by pointing to the fact that hers has not been inspected since 2016.

“If the authorities suspect my hatchery is a ‘laundry-mat’ why don’t they come here?” she said.

Investigators involved in the case, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, dismissed Ferreyra’s claims that transport costs accounted for the excess money, saying these should be no more than 10 percent of the shipment value.

They also point to her political contacts as a possible reason her businesses have until recently escaped scrutiny, a view that resonates in Iquitos, especially as two former officials responsible for monitoring the taricaya business later went to work for her companies.

But for William Maldonado from the management group, the investigation is yet another example of the state driving wildlife trafficking by creating obstacles instead of opportunities. The state should be helping them develop sustainable sources of income that do not destroy the rainforest, he says, but instead is placing ever more barriers to them working legally.

“The state teaches you to work illegally,” he said.

The suspicions over the taricaya business have not emerged from a vacuum. The companies involved belong to a sector contaminated by trafficking. The modality they use is arguably the most important form of international wildlife trafficking in Peru: legal exports.

The ornamental fish trade, which is one of Loreto’s most important export sectors, sent $2.7 million of fish in 2017, principally to China, Hong Kong and Japan. However, these exports often hide rare and exotic fish that are protected under law.

Currently, there are 21 Loreto companies with licenses to export wildlife, and most of them trade in fish. Many are already on the SUNAT “red list” for having been caught trafficking, SUNAT told InSight Crime in an interview. At least two of the 21 are shell companies set up purely to obtain export licenses, which they rent to traffickers, investigators in Loreto told InSight Crime, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Fish are sourced from the Amazon and its tributaries, with many of the most sought-after species extracted not in Peru but in Brazil. Traffickers travel to the border to make the buys and bring them back to Iquitos to sell to the aquarium dealers. While some are independent, others work with advances from the aquariums.

“There are aquariums that pay for this trafficking,” said Clara Chuquimbalqui, director of the Loreto government’s Regional Production Directorate (Dirección Regional de Producción – Direpro), which oversees the regional fish trade. “They finance the traffickers, they help and support them logistically.”

In the case of the bigger companies, they pay cash directly to fishermen and maintain holding stations at key locations.

“They pay Brazilian fishermen advances,” said John Jairo Garnica, a former tropical fish exporter who now runs a wildlife rescue center. “They have their paid personnel working at their collection stations just to receive the fish, then they bag them up. And they pay for the seats on the boats, and they also pay for airplanes to other parts of the Putumayo river.”

There are two forms of trafficking carried out by the aquarium dealers: trafficking of banned species, and trafficking of controlled species extracted from illegal sources, including moving species that are protected in Colombia and Brazil through Peru, where restrictions are looser. Some of the most sought-after species are worth up to $180 each to exporters.

Former Direpro official Carlos Perea described to InSight Crime how traffickers pack containers with far more fish than they are permitted to export using illegally sourced fish, or mix in illegal species with legal shipments. They also collude with airline staff to switch the boxes after inspection, and in some cases, even use secret compartments in tanks, which can be used to hide other banned species such as frogs, lizards or snakes.

Close-up of a taricaya turtle. Photo: Government of Peru

To ensure these shipments pass, the exporters rely on two key characteristics of the local authorities: a lack of capacity and corruption.

Inspections in extraction zones, at the aquariums and prior to shipment are carried out by the Direpro. The officials that do this work often have little to no technical knowledge and neither the capacity nor the resources to carry out full inspections, Perea said. Often, these officials are in the jobs not because of their experience or expertise but their connections, and their aim is not to oversee the wildlife sector but to make money from the bribes.

“Inspector jobs are often handed to people that sometimes don’t even have education or training,” Perea said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people arrive at these public sector positions not to do their work as a public servant but to make money for themselves.”

The exporters also enjoy political protection, numerous sources claim. Officials responsible for monitoring exports, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said they had come under political pressure from a Loreto congressman to ease off on the trade after the local exporters association, headed by Milagros Ferreyra, called a conference with business leaders, politicians and national-level environmental authorities to discuss wildlife exports in June 2018.

Ferreyra’s political clout has also come into question previously after a local official responsible for rulings affecting her fish exports was seen driving around Iquitos in a vehicle belonging to Ferreyra, according to local media reports.

While two cases have been passed to prosecutors in the last two years, no charges have been levied against the companies caught making illegal exports, which instead are fined. So far, the rewards remain higher than the risk.

There is evidence that the tropical fish and turtle trades are not the only wildlife trafficking businesses using a façade of legality in Peru. There are concerns over legal parrot trapping for export; national environmental police say they have received intelligence about criminality in the international butterfly trade; and investigations have revealed how Peruvian companies have been laundering millions of dollars of illegally harvested shark fins in their government-approved exports to Asia.

And illegality in the trade could be on the rise. The fish export market, for example, was posting impressive growth rates before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. At the same time, fishermen were reporting that the demand for the common legal species was falling, while the market for illegal species found in Brazil was on the rise, according to Garnica.

The pressure to extract these species, however, does not start with the aquarium dealers, but from those at the end of the supply chain, say officials.

“The aquarium owners say to me that they sometimes send banned species because their buyers in Asia and Europe demand them, and they say if they don’t send them, the clients won’t buy the rest,” said Chuquimbalqui. “The European and Asian markets are the instigators of this, because if they didn’t demand banned species, no one would sell them and there would be no market.”

Today, the taricaya boom appears to be fizzling out. Prices were already falling when COVID-19 hit, resulting in new import restrictions imposed by China and limited air travel that choked off access to the main market. Management groups are now struggling to recover their investments, leading to Sernanp launching an “adopt a turtle” campaign to try and make up for the financial shortfall. The investigation into Milagros Ferreyra continues. But with her accounts still frozen, her businesses have fallen into bankruptcy, she told InSight Crime in early 2021.

Even if the taricaya business collapses, its lessons about wildlife trafficking in Peru today remain. While officials hunt the very real but relatively rare smugglers of popular imagination, those who travel with birds stuffed into tubes in their luggage and drugged monkeys strapped around their chests, the biggest international traffickers are instead working with certificates of origin and export permits.

*This is the fourth chapter of a four-part series on wildlife trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.