A series of police operations in Brazil have shown that the poaching of exotic species appears to have exploded during the pandemic, as job losses and a lack of government attention have led more people to see the country’s wildlife as a way of making ends meet.
From January to August 2020, traffic stops across Brazil led to the seizure of over 25,000 exotic animals being illegally transported, mostly birds, CBN reported, citing highway police numbers. This represented an almost 500 percent increase over 2019.
In one incident in mid-August, around 200 birds, mostly species of parrots, were found in boxes filling the back seat and trunk of a passenger car in the central state of Minas Gerais. And traffic stops in the northeastern state of Bahia caught hundreds of birds between August 27 and September 2.
These seizures are just a drop in the ocean. Looking at just one particularly sought-after species, the turquoise-fronted parrot, it is estimated that at least 12,000 hatchlings from this striking bird are smuggled into São Paulo each year, Mongabay revealed in an extensive recent report. And plenty more die on the way, due to being taken from their nests, badly handled and placed in unsafe or unhealthy containers, a researcher from the Projeto Papagaio-verdadeiro (Turquoise-fronted Parrot Project) revealed.
But while birds are the most common target, other species have suffered severe losses. The trafficking of highly venomous snakes has exploded, according to wildlife activists. Jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands have been hunted and killed due to the demand for their body parts in traditional Chinese medicine. The list also stretches to lizards, iguanas, monkeys, turtles and sloths.
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The increase in wildlife trafficking during the pandemic is a confluence of different causes. The federal government has often seemed nonchalant, if not downright negligent, about fighting environmental crimes, such as deforestation and illegal mining in the Amazon. The budget of environment watchdogs has continuously been reduced.
But job losses across the country have also led more people to turn to wildlife trafficking as a means of making ends meet.
“Generally, those who capture (the animals) are people with a lower economic status in Brazil’s poorer regions,” Marcela Pavlenco, president of Brazilian non-governmental organization, SOS Fauna, told CBN.
“Many people have lost their jobs. Many who knew about this type of illegal trade but did not work in it…have now begun to sell these animals,” she added.
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The economic appeal of wildlife trafficking is easy to understand and benefits more than just the smugglers. As Mongabay reported in the case of turquoise-fronted parrots, plenty of others stand to profit as well. About a month before eggs hatch, traffickers make deals with landowners, those working the land and even squatters to negotiate how the chicks will be extracted and how much will be paid per bird. Those doing the poaching receive between 20-60 reais ($4.5 to $11) per chick. Those birds who survive the trip to São Paulo will then be sold for 200-450 reais ($36 to $82) apiece, according to Mongabay's research.
Faced with this increase, the government could be cracking down with tougher sentencing for these environmental crimes. This summer, a bill was presented to Brazil’s congress to create new penalties for wildlife trafficking and criminal association with wildlife trafficking.
“Currently, the criminalization of this activity…is insufficient in Brazil. It is not rare to see cases of recurring infractions, (with people) found trafficking dozens of animals along a highway and, then a few days later, they are caught again,” said the bill’s sponsor, deputy Ricardo Izar.