The trafficking of jaguar teeth from Bolivia's natural parks to China has sparked worries that Asian smugglers are boosting this illegal trade.
Between 2014 and 2016, 800 jaguar teeth have been seized by Bolivian authorities, suggesting that around 200 animals have been killed, reported the Bolivian Environment Forum (Foro Boliviano sobre Medio Ambiente - FOBOMADE). The teeth were reportedly intended to be smuggled to China.
FOBOMADE reports that the current number of killed jaguars threatens to reach levels comparable to the 1980s, when hunting was still legal. This comes despite a 30-year campaign to stop the practice in protected forest areas. The majority of jaguar teeth seizures have been made in the neighboring Madidi and Pilón Lajas natural reserves, said Teresa Pérez, director of the Environment Ministry's Biodiversity and Protected Areas Office.
People working to protect the jaguars have reported that some Chinese nationals are responsible for the poaching.
"When tourism was growing and raising people's awareness regarding laws and preservation, there were very few cases" of jaguar hunting, activist Daniel Manzaneda said. "But since the Chinese came they've been killing them by the dozen, as well as ocelots, snakes and who knows what other species."
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In May 2016, a Chinese citizen allegedly bought a radio announcement in Rurrenabaque municipality -- near Madidi -- in which he offered to buy jaguar teeth for $100 apiece. He was later arrested and six teeth were seized. Another Chinese citizen in Rurrenabaque was found with 300 jaguar teeth in 2014, although he is not currently behind bars.
These nature reserves are vast and largely unprotected. While in 1997 there were 25 forest rangers in the Pilón Lajas and Madidi reserves, today there are only 12 covering the 40,000-hectare expanse, and they have to make do with poor salaries and a lack of resources.
One of the detected wildlife trafficking routes from Madidi passes through the town of Ixiamas on its way to Peru.
"Past Ixiamas it's practically no man's land," a local police officer said. "Brazilian mafiosos and Peruvians enter and traffic as they please. Now we're also seeing Chinese people, I don't know if they're competition or if they have agreements."
According to Pérez, nine Chinese citizens and two Bolivians are currently being prosecuted for jaguar trafficking. In January, the Environment Ministry reported that 60 wildlife trafficking cases have been opened in the past 10 years.
InSight Crime Analysis
Jaguar trafficking in Bolivia could be evidence that Chinese organized crime is further spreading its tentacles into wildlife trafficking in Latin America. To be sure, Chinese demand for exotic food and other goods is a driving force behind what is now one of the world's largest criminal economies. Jaguar teeth are of great value in traditional Asian medicine. Various Latin American countries feed the Chinese black market, including Mexico, Peru and Ecuador with their offerings of prohibited seafood items.
What's more, there are signs that the presence of Chinese mafias is growing in the region. Authorities in Bolivia and other South American countries have detected Chinese human trafficking networks. And as the economic and political ties between China and Latin America deepen, it's possible that the Chinese criminal groups in the region will strengthen ties to their homeland.
It is difficult to understand the true reach of Chinese mafias in Latin America, however, as the modus operandi of these groups is notably low-key.