The pace of eco-trafficking in Latin America does not appear to have slowed under the coronavirus pandemic, with the smuggling of maritime species being particularly active.
The region’s protection mechanisms for eco-trafficking have rarely been strong, with officials participating in the pillaging of rare species or park rangers and inspectors being threatened by organized crime. But since lockdowns were imposed as part of the response to the coronavirus, even this limited vigilance has disappeared.
From thousands of turtles in Mexico to shark fins in Ecuador, China appears to be driving much of this demand.
“While China had given signs that it would not continue receiving wild fauna as it is the main importer of endangered species, we can see that this activity has continued under the pandemic,” Alejandro Olivera, spokesman for Mexico’s Center for Biological Diversity, told Conexión Capital.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking
Here, InSight Crime reviews the major cases of maritime eco-trafficking since Latin America entered lockdown.
While turtles and their eggs have long been one of the prime targets for eco-trafficking in Latin America, this appears to be all the more true since the lockdown. This is likely to have been made even easier since the drop in human activity has helped turtle colonies thrive across the region.
On May 10, Mexico's environmental protection agency, PROFEPA (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente) seized an eye-popping shipment of 15,053 freshwater turtles at Mexico City’s international airport inside wooden boxes destined for China. The turtles were from four different species, all of them considered threatened or endangered. At the time, most of the turtles survived. Only 260 were found dead.
However, by late May, reports emerged that a further 5,167 turtles had died, their conditions deteriorating after being rescued. The surviving ones were sent to care facilities in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán.
And in the southern state of Oaxaca, turtle protection activists have reported an increase in turtle theft. “Since the pandemic started, the looting of turtle eggs has increased. The killings have returned, they take the turtles from the nesting corral,” Sergio Ordaz, an organizer of turtle protection programs in Colotepec, Oaxaca, told Conexión Capital.
Poor vigilance by authorities hasn’t helped. According to the report, inspections were already infrequent and have now virtually stopped.
2. Shark Fins
China’s love of shark fin soup appeared to be on the wane. After National Basketball Association (NBA) superstar Yao Ming made it his personal mission to raise awareness about the environmental damage shark finning could cause, national demand and, therefore, the slaughter of sharks dropped significantly.
But in April and May, 26 tons of shark fins coming from Ecuador were found in two shipping containers in Hong Kong, a record haul for the city. With an estimated value of $1.1 million, the seizure was more than double the 12 tons of shark fins found in Hong Kong in all of 2019.
According to a species protection officer, the fins came from an estimated 31,000 thresher sharks and 7,500 silky sharks, both protected species.
Ecuador and Peru have seen widespread slaughter of sharks for their fins, which are mostly bound for Asian markets. Authorities have struggled to stem the trade or intentionally turned blind eye to it. In April 2019, an investigation found that officials within Peru’s agency overseeing wildlife exports were allegedly facilitating the illegal export of shark fins.
Hong Kong saw record seizures of marine species from Latin America during lockdown. A month after discovering the shark fins, authorities at the port city seized the biggest shipment ever recorded of totoaba fish bladders. The 160 kilograms of fish bladders, taken from an estimated 270 totoaba, were found after being airmailed from Los Angeles. This find was singlehandedly more than the total of all fish bladders found in Hong Kong since 2002, according to the city’s customs and excise department.
Totoaba fishing is banned internationally, but the large-sized fish is commonly poached in the Gulf of California. Its swim bladder, a gas-filled sack which helps control its buoyancy, can reportedly fetch between $20,000 and $80,000 a kilogram in China, where it is a delicacy used in soup and is known for unfounded medical benefits, such as helping with fertility or curing arthritis.
Illegal totoaba fishing has also put one of Mexico’s emblematic aquatic species, the vaquita porpoise, on a path to almost certain extinction. The totoaba and vaquita share waters in the Gulf of California, and illegal fishermen regularly catch and kill porpoises in their nets. There may be as few as 10 vaquita porpoises left.