Bolivian police have seized 5,000 baby caimans and 500 skins ready to be smuggled to Brazil, evidence of the regional trade in contraband wildlife.
The reptiles were found on trucks traveling from San Matias, a town on the border with Brazil, and were on their way to be sold in the southeastern town of Santa Cruz, reported The Associated Press. Baby crocodiles are popular for sale as exotic pets and for their meat, said the agency, while Prensa Libre reported the skins had a value of $18,000 and were destined to be made into shoes in Brazil.
Authorities believe eco-traffickers are making millions of dollars from the illegal wildlife trade in Bolivia, said Prensa Libre, estimating that more than 60,700 animals of 119 different species have smuggled out of the country during the last five years.
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The trade in reptile skins for shoes and handbags is thought to be responsible for around 85 percent of the world's crocodilians becoming endangered species. The UN estimates that between 1.1 million and 1.8 million crocodilian skins were traded each year between 1999 and 2008.
A large proportion of that trade is legal, governed under the long-standing Convention For International Trade in Endangered Species. However the illegal trade in wildlife is huge, with estimates of annual global profits ranging between $20 billion and $70.5 billion annually. As well as being killed for fashion items and alternative medicine products, thousands of animals are sold as exotic pets, with China and the United States the largest markets.
It's a particularly lucrative business in South America, home to some of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet. More than 46,000 illegally captured animals were captured in Colombia in 2012. Animal traffickers share routes with drug traffickers, according to a 2009 report by Reuters. Santa Cruz, where the caimans were reportedly going, has become a hub for regional trafficking and criminal activity in recent years.