Shocking images of dead birds floating in the Caribbean have exposed a thriving illegal wildlife trade between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.
In early June, 47 birds died after being thrown overboard by the crew of a boat as it was about to be boarded by the Caribbean island's coast guard, the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian reported. The birds included Hahn’s macaws, caiques and orange-winged parrots.
The three men, natives of Cedros in Trinidad, were allegedly intending to sell the birds on the island's black market after they had been poached in Venezuela.
The birds were likely obtained in Delta Amacuro, a Venezuelan state close to Trinidad where poorer Indigenous communities are known to hunt and catch animals at the behest of trafficking rings.
Exotic birds from Venezuela are prized for a range of reasons. Parrots, especially macaws, are sold as pets while songbirds are often used in singing competitions in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. Songbirds can fetch up to $5,000 apiece on the Caribbean island.
While Venezuela's current economic crisis has exacerbated eco-trafficking, this criminal economy is not new. One study by Venezuelan scientists and activists estimated that around 641,000 birds were trafficked out of the country between 1981 and 2015. However, official numbers have not been released in recent years.
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The poaching of Venezuelan wildlife has become a lifeline for poor communities living near the country's rainforests who are lured in the trade.
The jungles in Delta Amacuro, for example, teem with a great diversity of parrots, songbirds and more. They have become a convenient means of additional income for communities and criminal gangs, who already profit off contraband and drugs moving along the area's hundreds of waterways. And Trinidad and Tobago is a destination of choice for all of these products.
Delta Amacuro is one of Venezuela's poorest states, with some from Indigenous communities such as the Warao taking part in illegal activities as a means of survival.
One member of a Warao community in Delta Amacuro told InSight Crime that traffickers from Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana visit every two weeks to pick up birds and other animals they order in advance.
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A small portion of the captured birds are sold on the local black market in Trinidad and Tobago but most are trafficked to Colombia, Brazil, Guyana and other Caribbean islands, from which some go on to be trafficked further.
In addition to those leaving Delta Amacuro, boats smuggling Venezuelan wildlife often leave from Puerto Cabello, an important port in the Venezuelan state of Carabobo, while other wildlife shipments have been sent abroad by plane.
Illegal trafficking combined with habitat loss has pushed some bird species to the brink of extinction, including the red siskin, which was once common in the hills of northern Venezuela but has now been almost wiped out, according to the Red Siskin Initiative.