HomeInvestigationsPoaching Grounds: Wildlife Trafficking in Peru's Amazon
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Poaching Grounds: Wildlife Trafficking in Peru's Amazon

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME / 2 JUN 2022 BY KATIE JONES EN

Peru is among the world’s top ten most biodiverse countries. According to the Peruvian Ministry of Environment, it is second only to Colombia in terms of the number and types of birds, and it ranks in the top five globally for amphibians, mammals and plants. This has made the nation a hotbed for wildlife trafficking. Some of this wildlife is poached for the pet trade. It is also hunted for bush meat, or sacrificed for traditional remedies and religious rituals. Others are used in scientific research or to attract tourists.

The National Forest and Wildlife Service (Servicio Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre - Serfor) is responsible for developing and implementing the national strategy for fighting wildlife trafficking. Serfor is also in charge of enforcing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — the international agreement governing the hunting and trade of endangered species. The government agency’s responsibilities include granting export licenses, hunting licenses, trapping quotas and regulating and monitoring the commercialization of animal products.

The Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources and Wildlife (Organismo de Supervisión de los Recursos Forestales y la Fauna Silvestre - OSINFOR), for its part, plays the role of inspecting wildlife, including management plans, rescue centers, breeding centers and zoos, as well as sanctioning violators.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Wildlife Trafficking

According to Serfor, between 2015 and 2020, authorities seized more than 20,000 live animals destined for trafficking. Amphibians, particularly titicaca frogs (Telmatobius marmoratus), featured most commonly in seizures. Reptiles, such as green iguanas and turtles, and mammals are also highly trafficked. However, birds are the species that most attract traffickers’ attention.

“Their beauty is their perdition,” says Jessica Gálvez-Durand, the director of Serfor’s Sustainable Management of Wildlife Heritage Directorate.

Human couriers smuggle the birds in their carry-on luggage to Europe, where the animals are part of the pet trade. Songbirds, such as the thick-billed seedbed and the goldfinch, are trafficked for use in singing contests. Mammals are also trafficked. According to Gálvez-Durand, jaguar parts, such as fangs, are sought for sale in China. She says a jaguar tooth can cost 200 soles ($50) for Peruvians, while Chinese buyers will pay $200.

Insects, on the other hand, including beetles and butterflies, are trafficked for collectors' markets in Europe and Japan, said Eduardo Franco Berton, a journalist who has closely followed environmental crimes in Peru. Source areas include Loreto, Ucayali and Madre de Dios. In Loreto, for example, authorities have detected more than 40 extraction zones.

These areas are most often located within walking distance of roads or close to inhabited areas, according to a 2020 report by the Peruvian agency responsible for forestry controls. Protected areas, such as national parks and forest reserves, are under extreme pressure. César A. Ipenza, a lawyer who specializes in environmental issues, says that animals are often poached from protected areas despite existing conservation management plans.

Wildlife Trafficking Supply Chain

Wildlife trafficking in Peru's Amazon region occurs in three stages: extraction, transportation and commercialization. Some of the animals are concealed throughout these journeys. Others, which are part of an established trade, are laundered into the supply chain like timber and gold.

Animals are captured in numerous ways. Birds, for example, are caught in nets and, in some cases, their wings are clipped. In other cases, trees are felled, and the trunks are hollowed to extract chicks from their nests. Traps are set for others. Some traffickers dig pits and cover them with sticks, placing bait in the middle. Local fishermen harvest river turtles with ordinary fishing gear, such as rods, nets and bait, and then they peddle their catch at local markets or via social media.

Once the wildlife is captured or killed, it is moved to wildlife trafficking centers in the Peruvian Amazon. Some traffickers use the rivers of Amazonas, Marañón, Huallaga, Putumayo, Ucayali, Pastaza, Saramiriza, Trapiche, Puhunahua and Mariscal Castilla to move wildlife around the region. The animals are also transported by air from remote provinces to Iquitos, the unofficial capital of the Peruvian Amazon. Pucallpa, the capital of Ucayali, is also a major collection and transit point for wildlife trafficking in the region.

Animals that have traveled south along the river from Loreto transit through Pucallpa. To the south, Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, is also used as a wildlife trafficking collection point. Wild animals reach the city from the provinces of Tahuamanu and Tambopata. Trafficked wildlife has been shipped to Bolivia as well, through the southeastern department of Puno. From these regional transit centers, the wildlife is moved to other parts of Peru, particularly to Lima. An investigation conducted by Serfor in 2017 identified 15 primary wildlife trafficking land, river and air routes.

SEE ALSO: Peru's Turtle Traffickers Operate Under Veneer of Legality

During or after transit, the animals, or their parts, can be laundered into the licit distribution chain. This involves document falsification and legal fronts, such as breeding farms, zoos and aquariums. Some companies actively buy illegally-sourced animals, and use falsified documentation to give themselves plausible deniability. Lawyer César Ipenza says that false documentation is allowing more and more animals to leave the country.

However, most of the trafficked wildlife is sold locally. A study by Serfor identified 41 markets in ten departments where illegal animals and animal products are sold. These markets are primarily based in Loreto, Ucayali and Lima. The creatures are also sold on the internet, especially on social media, a Peruvian wildlife trafficking expert said. About 20 percent of wildlife is trafficked via international markets. Rare frog species, for example, are sold for up to $100 a head in international markets, while a species of turtle sold in the United States fetches up to $500 each. A black-beaked parrot can be sold for as much as $1,000.

Some species are sold in neighboring countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Chile. Taricaya turtles are traded on Peru's border with Ecuador for example, while the saffron finch is smuggled into Brazil for singing contests. Officials with the Loreto prosecutor's office also said that macaws are commonly sold along the border with Brazil. Birds, reptiles, monkeys and frogs are trafficked to Europe, often through Lima airport. These species end up in the hands of zoos and illegal collectors from countries like Holland, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Other species are sold to Asian buyers. China is the largest market for plants and animals smuggled out of Peru, followed by the United States. Ornamental fish are sold in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Meanwhile, Taricaya turtles are sent to Hong Kong. Their illegal export goes hand in hand with legal trade, in which they are sent to Hong Kong before being sold in nations such as Kuwait, Japan, the United States, Indonesia, South Korea, Italy, the Philippines and Malaysia. Jaguar fangs and skins from Peru are also sold in Asia. According to investigative journalist Eduardo Franco Berton, they are often trafficked first to Bolivia in small quantities, where customs controls are less stringent, particularly at airports.

Actors Behind Wildlife Trafficking

Legal entities – breeders, exporters, and importers – feed the illicit international wildlife trade emanating from the Peruvian Amazon. The most successful international traffickers work with certificates of origin and export permits, using a legal varnish to smuggle endangered creatures abroad. They connect the small-time poacher with larger international markets. Legal actors also sometimes finance the trade and work with criminal entrepreneurs, such as intermediaries and brokers, while enjoying political protection. They work through companies that are engaged in the legal export of wild fauna and flora to smuggle creatures that cannot be sent abroad.

For example, as illustrated in a recent case chronicled by InSight Crime, there are around 21 companies in the department of Loreto with licenses to export wildlife, most of which trade in tropical fish. However, some of these exporters hide rare and exotic fish protected by law in legal shipments. Indeed, some of the companies with licenses to export wildlife outside the department of Loreto have been caught trafficking and are on a “red list” compiled by the National Superintendence of Customs and Tax Administration (Superintendencia Nacional de Aduanas y de Administración Tributaria - SUNAT). And at least two of the 21 were shell companies created to obtain export licenses and then “rent” them to traffickers, Loreto investigators revealed on the condition of anonymity.

Aquariums in the region have also been accused of wildlife trafficking. They allegedly traffic prohibited species and controlled species extracted in Colombia and Brazil, where restrictions are looser. The director of Direpro, Clara Chuquimbalqui, stated that aquariums “finance the traffickers.”

"They help them and support them logistically,” she said.

Larger aquariums pay fishermen directly with cash advances. John Jairo Garnica, a former tropical fish exporter who now runs a wildlife rescue center, said some aquariums use their own staff to go to “collection stations” where they “receive the fish and then bag them.” In some cases, he adds, the aquariums will also pay for collectors to fly to more remote areas.

Some conservation groups have also been alleged to provide cover for the illegal trade of fauna, such as those involved in conservation of the taricaya turtle. In Loreto, grupos de manejo, or management groups, which are made up of local communities, are charged with protecting taricaya eggs and ensuring hatchlings reach Amazon waterways. In return for caring for these turtles, the groups are allowed to sell some turtles for export. But Peruvian authorities and an environmentalist in the program alleged to InSight Crime that they discovered irregularities in breeding records for some management groups, leading to suspicions that turtles meant to be released in the wild were being diverted for export.

Intermediaries and Brokers

There are various intermediaries and brokers who facilitate wildlife trade. They request specific species of fauna in certain quantities, and sometimes finance hunting and fishing expeditions. Brokers also use legal loopholes and grey zones in the laws. Where subsistence hunting is allowed, for instance, they typically source large numbers of animals.

Some of these brokers have taken on monikers. The habilitadores (fixers) are the financiers that orchestrate large hunting expeditions. They offer cash advances to poachers to hunt certain species and provide them with equipment. The acopiadores (collectors) carry out more organized trafficking. They keep in contact with local communities based in extraction zones, to stockpile animals and move them in large numbers. They buy animals dead or alive. In some cases, collectors travel between communities to buy wildlife directly from extraction zones. In other cases, poachers bring them wildlife they have caught. Collectors are also involved in transporting wildlife to sales points. There are also rematistas (resellers), who buy meat, live animals and parts directly from poachers. Then they take the animals or their parts to city markets and sell them.

Poachers and Farmers

Wildlife trafficking starts with poachers, often locals who have been contacted by exporters, brokers or intermediaries to hunt certain species upon request. Some also generate supplemental income by capturing live animals or selling animal parts for artisanal or superstitious purposes, according to a poacher working in Iquitos. The primary weapons of choice for poachers tend to be shotguns and machetes, though certain species require them to employ traps as well.

Poachers generally earn very little from capturing and killing animals. A poacher from the city of Iquitos said he usually earns 500 soles (about $150) on a three-week hunting trip. As the wildlife has disappeared due to overhunting and habitat destruction, poachers are increasingly venturing farther into the jungle. This increases both the time and cost of each trip in exchange for few benefits.

For their part, farmers catch or kill animals while they are protecting their land or hunting for game. This is particularly true as it relates to jaguars. According to the Serfor official, Jessica Gálvez-Durand, when farmers encounter a jaguar, they will kill the mother to sell its fangs and claws, and capture its babies to sell as pets.

*InSight Crime has partnered with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to trace the environmental crimes and criminal actors driving deforestation in Peru's Amazon. See the entire six-part series here.

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