With the colonization of South America in the 16th century, local animals became a symbol of exotic beauty in Europe; toucans, parrots, and primates were traded in enormous numbers. Macaws, in particular, were immortalized in the art of the period, and live collections of them were markers of status and fashion. But despite the popularity of the Peruvian birds to this day, the animal most trafficked in Peru is the Endangered Titicaca Water Frog, exploited for food and traditional medicine. Other victim species include jaguars (mainly poached for their canines), primates (shipped as pets or to dubious research labs), Spectacled Bears, foxes, armadillos, other amphibians, iguanas, turtles, and fish. Insects are traded too, mostly for private collections in Europe and Japan.
The impact of trafficking goes far beyond the suffering of the individual animals. Sensitive ecosystems can easily fall out of balance when just one species is hunted, and trafficking is the second major cause of extinction, after habitat destruction. In addition to disrupting the ecosystem from which the animals are poached, trafficking also contributes to the growing problem of invasive species, bringing diseases and imbalance to the destination as well. A striking example comes from Colombia, where four hippos that belonged to Pablo Escobar’s private zoo were left to roam after his death in 1993. To this day, their offspring are damaging the local wildlife and wetlands on which locals depend for their income. Damage to economies and ecosystems is also triggered by the trade of flora, and by the poaching process itself. Poaching kills more animals than the targeted individuals: for every animal captured, it is assumed that 8–9 more are killed in the process. Trees are often felled to capture sloths and to take chicks from their nests.
Disease transmission has always been a concern and it drove the formation of legislation to control and regulate the wildlife trade. Today, with COVID-19 still swirling, this danger seems more evident than ever. The transfer of animals from one location to another carries diseases, which spread and mutate easily due to the lack of sanitation and the crowded and poor conditions in which animals are kept. Even without a pandemic, the spread of diseases affects agriculture and the livelihoods that depend on it. All of the above problems also contribute to migration and to the increasing worldwide refugee problem, as lands become uninhabitable or unprofitable.
Finally, the suffering of the individual victims is no small matter. Some animals can be laundered within legal trade — for example, for animals that can be legally transported, there might be a false report of the number of animals transported, packing more animals in the same space, or fake permits might be used. Other times animals are hidden within shipments of inanimate transports, meaning they are likely kept in highly unfit conditions. Birds, for example, and are tranquilized, have their eyelids sewn shut, and are then shoved into tubes within carry-on luggage. Primates are shut in wooden boxes or restrained and are often kept in isolation even after arriving at the destination. In addition to physical distress, trafficked animals also suffer from the forced separation from their families.
The challenge of fighting this crime is twofold: one is the governments’ lack of capacity to analyze the problem and act on it. As mentioned above, the CITES agreement, although vital, is not sufficient, and regional governments are the main bodies that should be strengthened to act in their territories. The second problem concerns the reintroduction of seized species: Peru has only 12 rescue centers, which are a vital step before returning victims back to the wild (unless they spent less than seven days in captivity). Sometimes, when no rescue center can receive a rescued animal or if the animal is infected, it is euthanized.
The impact of raising worldwide awareness is evident in Peru as well. Netflix’s mega-hit Tiger King raised public awareness of trafficking, and in recent years, tourists have seemed more reluctant to visit attractions that involve wildlife. Recently, Peru included wildlife trafficking within its Law against Organized Crime. The law was unanimously approved in late June this year, making Peru South America’s leader in the fight against wildlife trafficking, as authorities will be better equipped to detect, deter, and investigate this crime.
According to Jessica Gálvez-Durand of Peru’s SERFOR (National Forest and Wild Fauna Service), the biggest threat to species in Peru is the destruction of habitats. It destabilizes the ecosystem and pushes animals to more crowded areas, making them more vulnerable to poaching. The Yungas, the ecoregion where TiME’s protected lands are located, borders some of the main poaching areas in Peru. Since poaching itself is often performed by locals, the cooperation of local communities in protecting the lands is vital to defend the biodiversity hotspots. TiME, together with NPC, is protecting and conserving the land to ensure that it is a haven safe from poaching and deforestation — another step in the fight against this global threat to biodiversity, public health, and the economy.
The caracal I saw in Bangkok will most likely haunt me forever, but the measures being taken today give me hope that such sights will be ever rarer. Strengthening enforcement and regional governments, increasing public awareness, and protecting habitats (as TiME is doing with your support) go hand in hand, promoting a world well-equipped and willing to fight this crime.
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