While not as lucrative as illegal mining, wildlife trafficking is still a multimillion-dollar business.
Each day, birds, reptiles, amphibians, felines, and primates are snatched from their natural habitats to be sold on domestic urban markets or to traders halfway across the world. Monkeys are taken from the jungle for experimentation in the interest of science. Sloths become the stars of vacation selfies. And a whole host of other creatures are hunted either to be pets, consumed for supposed potency, for medicines, religious rituals or to feed the vagaries of the fashion trade.
Despite being a highly lucrative business that is transnational in scope, wildlife trafficking has been unable to attract sufficient attention from Colombian authorities more concerned with battling drug cartels. "Judges prefer to put someone in jail for drug trafficking or illegal mining than for carrying a parrot in their purse," according to Fernando Trujillo, Scientific Director at the Omacha Foundation (Fundación Omacha), a conservation NGO based in Colombia.
The country’s Amazon region is home to a large part of the 50,000 species of fauna present in Colombia. Even though many of these species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), this has not stopped the region from becoming a hub for the illicit capture of wildlife intended to feed national and international markets.
According to a recent report published by media outlet Semana Sostenible, together with the Humboldt Institute, the "Top 10" species trafficked in Colombia are as follows: (1) The Hicotea turtle (Trachemys callirostris); (2) Red-footed tortoise (Chelonoides carbonaria); (3) Green iguana (Iguana iguana); (4) Orange-chinned parakeet (Brotogeris jugularis); (5) Poison dart frogs (Dendrobatidae spp.) (6) Yellow-crowned parrot (Amazona ochrocephala); (7) Blue-headed parrot (Pionus menstruus); (8) Red-tailed squirrel (Notosciurus granatensis); (9) White-footed Tamarin monkey (Sanguinus leucopus); (10) White-fronted Capuchin monkey (Cebus albifrons). All of these can be found in the Colombian Amazon, except for the Red-tailed Squirrel. And traffickers have taken note as they ransack the region’s forests in search of such species.
Other creatures living across the region have also caught the attention of traffickers. On the edge of the Amazon and the Llanos Orientales region, the Mata-Mata Tortoise (Chelus fimbriata) is trafficked in mass from the department of Vichada to the markets of the Amazonian Tri-Border area connecting the city of Leticia to Peru and Brazil. The turtles are smuggled across the scarcely monitored frontier into Peru, where they are more easily sold.
Other creatures also illegally pass through Colombia’s Amazonian Tri-Border without problem. Species of ornamental fish – which are coveted by the international aquarium trade for their curious shapes and attractive colors – are smuggled through the border zone into Colombia. The Zebra pleco (Hypancistrus zebra) and the Xingu River Ray, or white-blotched river stingray (Potamotrygon leopoldi), are trafficked from Brazil and commercialized through criminal networks and entrepreneurs using front companies.
In Colombia’s Amazon, the medicinal use and consumption of wild species native to the region is an integral part of daily life for local communities. But this has opened the door to opportunistic, local trafficking that, despite its lack of organization, contributes to a steady loss of biodiversity. In 2020, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that 407 species in Colombia are at risk of extinction, many of which are native to the Amazon region.
Inside Wildlife Trafficking: How It Works
Like illegal logging and illicit crop cultivation, wildlife trafficking affecting Colombia’s Amazon unfolds in three principal phases: extraction, transportation/transformation, and commercialization.
First, members of local communities, who know the terrain best, are contacted to hunt down or capture given species of fauna native to Colombia’s Amazon. In many cases, this stage may be highly opportunistic. If a local person out tending to his crops or walking around the neighborhood happens to come across a creature known to be coveted by traffickers, he may capture it, knowing he will be able to easily sell it for profit later.
Then, the creature undergoes a rudimentary “transformation process.” If discovered dead, or killed in a capture attempt, the creature may be skinned or have its fangs and claws removed. Animals like jaguars (Panthera onca) or primate species are examples of popular creatures among traffickers for these purposes. Parts that are not useful to the seller are usually thrown away.
Then, whether dead or alive, the creature is transported out of the region. As in the illicit timber trade, illegally captured animals are “laundered,” or disguised - that is to say, the origins of illegally captured species are covered up – through the use of legal documentation filled in with inaccurate data. This is so they can be sold on via legal outlets.
For example, a legal breeding farm in Colombia’s Amazon might have an offshoot sourcing illicitly captured specimens. Outlets like these use permits they already possess to pass off illegally captured creatures as being legally sourced, according to Claudia Brieva, a professor specializing in the study of wildlife, animal health and wellbeing at the National University of Colombia (Universidad Nacional de Colombia) and Carlos Andrés Galvis Rizo, chief conservation biologist at Cali Zoo.
Finally, the animal (or its parts) is sold. What happens next depends on whether the specimens in question are dead or alive. Clara Lucía Sierra and Giovanni Andrés Ulloa Delgado, two wildlife conservation experts, revealed that live species are taken directly to roads or local markets, often based in the Amazon region itself.
Some animals (or products made from their parts) are then sold at local sales points. Others are taken to the border area in Leticia where they traverse air, land, or river routes to reach international and domestic markets.
According to Fernando Trujillo, they are also acquired by national and international laboratories dedicated to animal testing, breeding farms, or tourist companies.
On the other hand, these creatures are marketed via social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, the scope of which means a turtle living in its Amazonian home one day can be captured and sold as an exotic pet in an international urban market just weeks later.
Catching the Catchers: Actors Involved in Wildlife Trafficking
Unlike some other environmental crimes, wildlife trafficking operates in an ambiguous and, at times, poorly organized manner. Although sophisticated criminal networks and traffickers exclusively dedicated to the activity do exist, Colombia’s illegal wildlife trade is largely driven by opportunistic trafficking led by local trappers, who are often members of Indigenous or local communities.
The actors involved fall into three overarching categories: criminal networks/entrepreneurs, the labor force and facilitators/legal actors. The role of facilitators/legal actors in wildlife trafficking will be explored later in this report, in its corruption section.
Criminal networks are intermediary structures that sell creatures and animal products on domestic urban markets and internationally. At a domestic level, they use social network platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook to avoid trading in public places like pet shops where authorities keep a close watch.
At an international level, they often smuggle animals in deplorable conditions. Otherwise, criminal entrepreneurs known as “exporters” use legal fronts to disguise where illegally captured animals have been sourced.
Criminal networks with no legal outlet to work through smuggle creatures using rudimentary means. Animals are transported overseas in deplorable conditions: without oxygen and in crowded spaces with low temperatures. This causes many creatures to die in transit.
Such networks transport live parrots to Brazil, the United States and Spain in among luggage or hidden in passengers' clothing. Live reptiles are trafficked inside plastic bags and bottles. Meanwhile, marine species are transported dead inside parcels.
On the other hand, “exporters” own legal enterprises dedicated to trading fish, other species and their by-products (i.e., skins). They use these to illegally traffic and sell live fauna or animal products.
An official who used to work for the National Authority for Aquaculture and Fisheries (Autoridad Nacional de Acuicultura y Pesca - AUNAP), a body responsible for monitoring the legal export of aquatic creatures estimated that exporters "could make up to $10 million [through setting up just one business venture] without any of the fish they send abroad being tracked."
Exporters are often affiliated with, or belong to, political and economic elites. According to wildlife experts Clara Sierra and Giovanni Delgado, this gives them socio-political influence, which benefits their legal and illegal businesses. They also maintain connections to the underworld.
These ties allow exporters to acquire creatures from criminal networks equipped with the tools and connections to illegally source, capture, and transport animals from Colombia’s Amazon region.
Far from hiding lizards in plastic bottles, exporters smuggle illegally captured species through shipments containing creatures they legally send overseas. To do this, they count on the support of corrupt officials stationed at borders, according to an official at the U.S. Department of the Interior. The official explained that they corrupt airline workers, customs officials, and other members of staff working in airports and ports.
Finally, brokers are middlemen who work for criminal networks and entrepreneurs. Sam Shanee, a wildlife trafficking expert at Neotropical Primate Conservation, explains that brokers link those orchestrating international wildlife trafficking in its most organized form to local communities hunting coveted creatures in Colombia’s Amazon.
They contact hunters and transporters, telling them which species criminal entrepreneurs are seeking, along with the quantity they require and details of agreed delivery points.
Brokers are also in charge of overseeing collection centers, meaning they often operate at a regional level. As intermediaries, they also take charge of bribing the authorities (including environmental agencies or police) who carry out controls on roads or exit points.
Through brokers or on their own accord, members of criminal networks smuggle animals through luggage or cargo shipments to lucrative international markets in Asia, Europe, and North America. Although they scarcely transport and sell such creatures in bulk, sometimes they may be required to bribe customs officials or international traders along the way.
Meanwhile, the labor force driving wildlife trafficking in Colombia’s Amazon comprises local hunters and transporters. Such actors may be charged with performing both tasks: hunting/capturing the animals and then transporting them to collection points.
According to Ángela Maldonado, an ecologist and expert on wildlife trafficking at the Amazonian tri-border, the labor force is often made up of members of local communities that are largely Indigenous people contacted by corrupt officials at breeding farms and laboratories to hunt specific creatures.
Such actors may also be contacted by brokers asking them to capture wildlife on behalf of criminal networks and entrepreneurs. “Wildlife trafficking and the consumption [of animals] is deeply rooted in Amazonian communities. Whether it is organized or not, hunting fauna for subsistence purposes or to meet illegal ends is part of daily life here in [the department of] Amazonas,” noted Maldonado.
This is principally because such communities know their territories (and the creatures inhabiting them) better than anybody else. However, it is important to highlight that oftentimes hunters are unaware of the illegal nature of their activities. They often hunt as part of a subsistence lifestyle. They are often not formally, or knowingly linked to, criminal networks.
The Ornamental Fish Trade at Colombia’s Amazonian Tri-Border
Most news reports exposing wildlife trafficking out of Colombia’s Amazon focus on species smuggled overseas to meet high international demand. Monkeys, felines, turtles, alligators and even frogs are the recurring protagonists in wildlife trafficking out of the region. However, some affected species largely go unnoticed.
"Ornamental fish" are small aquatic creatures whose striking colors and shapes have attracted collectors worldwide. The international aquarium trade covets them, and many species can be sold legally. However, protected species living in the Amazon Basin are often traded illegally.
Although recent concrete data is difficult to come by, in 2011, Colombia found itself among the top 15 countries exporting ornamental fish internationally. AUNAP regulates the legal trading of these specimens as Colombia’s main entity charged with fisheries and aquaculture management. The body defines which species can be legally harvested and sets quotas in line with this. AUNAP also seeks to combat illegal ornamental fish trafficking.
However, actions taken by the agency have not deterred those illegally trading coveted species. A former Colombian fisheries official confirmed that some exporters exceed their quotas (exporting more fish than legally permitted), taking advantage of a lack of AUNAP personnel tasked with monitoring legal shipments.
According to the official, exporters have also been known to bribe customs officials and AUNAP agents based across the Amazon region.
In line with this, a lack of state control along Colombia’s Amazonian tri-border with Peru and Brazil has made the porous zone a hot spot for ornamental fish trafficking.
While in Brazil, there are heavy restrictions banning trade in ornamental fish species, including the Zebra pleco, in Peru and Colombia, the sale of this species is less restricted. Listed as a species under “severe threat” by Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment (Ministério do Meio Ambiente – MMA) since 2004, to acquire this species is seen as an achievement among international collectors who admire its exotic appearance.
Criminal networks dedicated to trafficking ornamental fish out of the Amazon region have exploited a lack of policy articulation between the three countries and scarce controls by environmental authorities and customs to curb the trade, according to an AUNAP official and a former official of this same institution.
The official revealed how ornamental fish are caught by members of local communities along the Negro and Xingu rivers in Brazil, then transported by criminal networks to the tri-border area with Peru and Colombia. There, the fish are passed off as having been legally harvested in breeding farms.
Then, they are transported onward. First, they are sent to airports in the Amazon Basin, like Iquitos Airport in Peru and Leticia Airport in Colombia. Later, specimens are flown to the capital cities of Lima in Peru and Bogotá in Colombia. Finally, they are sent to their final destinations: Europe, Asia, and North America, where they are sold in the global aquarium trade.
Exporters use their legal enterprises to illegally traffic ornamental fish. It is easy for exporters to get around controls seeking to regulate the number of specimens sent abroad.
On the one hand, AUNAP personnel and environmental authorities based at ports cannot thoroughly check all shipments that are to be exported. There are simply not enough bodies to check individual fish inside each container before shipping.
Most fish are trafficked as newly born hatchlings, so determining quantities and species is practically impossible as some species are just 0.5 millimeters at birth. It is hard to know if those being transported correspond to what "legal" documentation permits. This leaves a challenging task for the few officials monitoring the trade in transit zones like Leticia.
Ornamental fish trafficking registers high levels of impunity. “Such crimes are not simply dismissed by the authorities, rather [authorities know] very little about how to apply the law when impeding these crimes,” the US Interior official revealed.
AUNAP and environmental authorities cannot open criminal investigations targeting the trade without the support of the Attorney’s General Office or the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN). This leaves environmental authorities with just a handful of administrative tools (such as confiscating exporting permits) that have yielded scarce results in stopping wildlife trafficking.
This lack of capacity is underpinned by how crimes relating to the trade are often dismissed in countries like Colombia and Peru. Biologist Carlos Galvis at Cali Zoo and Professor Claudia Brieva agreed that judges in Colombia prioritize cases related to drug trafficking and illegal mining over wildlife trafficking, which is still very much underappreciated in the nation’s Amazon region.
“[Judges] don’t take stands on wildlife trafficking because they are afraid of losing popularity in communities, or simply because they do not see a parrot being trafficked inside camera film as a reason to send someone to jail," said Fernando Trujillo.
Ultimately, protected species of ornamental fish trafficked out of Colombia’s Amazon region fall victim to criminal networks and corrupt officials joining forces. With a lack of official capacity to monitor the legal trade, porous border zones used as transit points and high international demand for exotic species, ornamental fish trafficking thrives in the Amazon Basin, as authorities in Colombia largely dismiss wildlife crime.