In 2017, with increasing reports of illegal wildlife trade leaving the Amazon, I decided to fly accompanied by a photographer and filmmaker to Iquitos, Peru, to investigate the situation.
Our team soon learned that jaguars were a readily available commodity in this small town, a gateway to the rainforest on the banks of the Amazon River.
Vendors displayed jaguar and ocelot skins in at least a dozen locations, including the Belén market, outdoor craft stands, small shops, and even tourist attractions.
Jaguar heads and jewelry made with teeth and claws, sometimes adorned with semi-precious stones, were also openly sold. Some vendors were quite open about their trading activity.
Others were more cautious. Jaguars are a protected species: poaching, trafficking, or selling their parts is illegal under Peruvian law and international treaties.
Despite this prohibition, the authorities of the environmental agency of the province of Loreto showed us piles of confiscated cat skins.
We were told that trafficking in many species had increased in recent years, and police operations had caused some clandestine trades to operate more discreetly – but not all.
To find out more about supply and demand, we boarded a small traditional boat for a short ride through the brown, muddy Amazon to the Momón River, a small tributary.
There, we spoke with members of the Boras community, an indigenous group. They lived deep in the rainforest but regularly came to Iquitos to sell handicrafts to tourists and perform traditional dances, dressed in cat skins.
They regularly hunted jaguars. One elder revealed that Chinese buyers had come to them two years earlier, in 2015, looking to buy teeth and pelts from the so-called “American tiger,” and had been placing orders regularly ever since.
This unique gathering offers a local example of how a booming Asian market, linked to escalating Chinese financial investment, has created an economic incentive for hunters and smugglers in the region, posing a severe threat to wildlife in the Amazon Basin.
It’s not a new trend: A similar pattern unfolded in the early 2000s, when Chinese mining, logging, and infrastructure companies moved to Africa, triggering the poaching of elephants, rhinos, and pangolins.
Unfortunately, trafficking in the Amazon has only increased since my 2017 visit. Colleagues who investigated the Peruvian trade earlier this year found endangered species readily available for sale.
This month, a new report by WWF and the Zoological Society of London sounded an urgent biodiversity alarm for the region.
Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Amazon, were found to have experienced a 94% decline in average wildlife population size over the last 48 years – the steepest drop seen in any region in the world. While deforestation is one of the leading causes, trafficking has also contributed to the crisis.
From jaguars to frogs
China now dominates trade with South America: its transactions on the continent exceeded 450 billion dollars in 2021.
This flow of Chinese money, companies, and labor has catalyzed the circulation of animal species on the IUCN Red List ( along with legally traded species) endangered from the Amazon to China and Southeast Asia.
Demand is wide ranging from jaguars and songbirds to poison dart frogs and tropical fish. These species are sought after as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, used in the fashion industry, and sold alive as pets. Online commerce is also booming.
Traders fall into two categories, says Juliana Machado Ferreira, executive director of Freeland Brasil, a nonprofit conservation organization and co-author of a 2020 report on Brazilian wildlife smuggling.
“There are workers who come here and want to take a gift home,” she says, but notes that the big traders are high-level criminal organizations.
Elizabeth Bennett, vice president for species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), was one of the first to sound the alarm at the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London.
The Chinese presence had triggered what she characterized as “an explosion in trans-Pacific organized crime [in Latin America], including trafficking in people, drugs, and weapons, as well as wildlife.”
“The shadow of criminality runs deep here,” said an environmental official in Loreto. This turned much of the Amazon into “a lawless frontier”.
The underworld of a transnational industry
The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, covers 5.4 million square kilometers, an area two-thirds the size of the United States.
More than half are within Brazil’s borders; the rest are spread across Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.
It is one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, home to about a quarter of all land animal and plant species, and more fish species than any other river system.
Some exist only here. More than 12,000 species in the Amazon are protected by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which limits or prohibits commercial cross-border trade. But Cites didn’t stop the traffickers.
The illicit wildlife trade is the fourth most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, worth up to $23 billion a year , according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
With little oversight and light penalties, it’s a low-risk, high-profit business. Today, routes out of the Amazon are well established, with marked paths serving as conduits for all types of criminality.
Eight Amazonian countries are major cocaine traders, the same ones that illicitly profit from illegal logging, mining, and arms trafficking – helping to build an underworld infrastructure for the wildlife trade.
The export of animals from the Amazon Basin is not new. A well-established trade channel shipped countless numbers of exotic Amazonian birds to the United States and Europe until a few decades ago when import laws changed.
Then, about 15 years ago, came the first influx of Chinese investment. More than $140 billion in loans from Chinese state banks have supported road and construction companies, mining and logging companies, and their workers scattered across the Amazon region.
WCS estimates that the wildlife trade between South America and Asia has doubled over the last decade.
These activities have opened forests to poachers and threatened ecosystems. A 2020 study estimates that a quarter of these Chinese-led projects are devastating protected areas in the Amazon, while a third encroach on Indigenous Lands.
The flow of animal shipments goes to Asian countries, particularly China ( the world’s biggest consumer of wild animals ) and Vietnam, says Ferreira.
They are sold alive or in pieces, acquired as pets, used to decorate high-fashion clothing, coveted by collectors, and consumed as supposed medicine or exotic cooking ingredients. Rare, high-quality items are displayed as status symbols.
Figures outside of Peru offer a dimension of the magnitude of this undertaking. Officials confiscated 79,000 endangered animals between 2000 and 2017, as well as tens of thousands of animal parts.
For every animal seized, about 10 animals were smuggled, experts said at the time. The covid-19 pandemic has interfered with both enforcement and research, so current trafficking statistics are not available.
A rising threat
The first reports of trafficking with China surfaced in 2003. Organized crime networks in Suriname were orchestrating the sale of jaguar teeth and claws to Chinese buyers.
As there are currently few wild tigers in Asia, jaguar parts are sold as tiger substitutes in Chinese medicine, says Dora Arévalo Valencia of WCS, which focuses on wildlife trafficking in South America.
Soon, meat (a delicacy) and paste (produced by boiling a carcass for five days and then used as a supposed treatment for rheumatism and retarded sexual vigor) also became valuable commodities.
Then poaching emerged in Bolivia. Local people, loggers, and prospectors began killing jaguars and keeping their parts for “when the Chinese pass through,” says Esteban Payán, a biologist and member of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Cat Specialist Group. Some buyers began ordering from hunters – a practice we later found in the Boras community in Peru.
One radio station, Red Patria Nueva, aired an advertisement in 2017 for someone looking for “tiger” (jaguar) prey, “preferably big and clean.”
A jaguar’s tusks, claws, skin, and genitals can sell for up to $3,000 in Bolivia. These are orders with values much higher than a normal month’s salary, and a fraction of the price practiced in Asia.
Bolivia has filed 57 cases of jaguar smuggling since 2014, with two additional seizures in China.
However, the hundreds of prey confiscated in recent years represent only a small part of the trade, and jaguars are just one of many Amazonian species targeted by hunters.
In a 2018 bust, Bolivian police confiscated parts of about 54 species of animals, including snakes and armadillos, arresting two Chinese nationals and one Bolivian national, according to an IUCN report.
Animals are transported in every possible and imaginable way, in miserable conditions. Huddled together, without food or water, in extreme temperatures, they are barely able to breathe.
Smugglers stuff them into wheel wells, water bottles, and plastic bags. They cover eggs and small animals with clothing using duct tape or hide them in luggage.
Animals are transported by motorcycle, truck, car, plane, train, shipping container, international mail, or via courier. Yovana Murillo of WCS estimates that the majority, around 90%, die during capture or in transit.
Fauna uprooted from forests and rivers
The numbers collected were astonishing. At that time, 12,000 live parrots of around 50 species were exported each year.
Macaws are in high demand, says Pauline Verheij, an expert on wildlife and forest crime at the nonprofit EcoJust.
In one case, a Chinese woman was arrested in Taiwan carrying 49 hyacinth macaw eggs in a heated bag, taking them to her uncle, a smuggler who smuggled birds from Paraguay to China.
Verheij notes that Suriname and Guyana “stand out when it comes to exports of live birds, wild birds, reptiles and amphibians”.
Spectacled bears, or Andean bears, are also targeted, and killed for their gallbladders, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine as a supposed cure for numerous ailments.
A single gallbladder can sell for US$150 – five times the average monthly wage in Ecuador. Bear paws, considered a delicacy, are worth $20 each.
There’s also a thriving Asian market for ornamental fish, says Freeland’s Ferreira. As of 2017, the Loreto region of Peru alone exported US$2.7 million worth of fish, mostly to China (especially via Hong Kong) and Japan.
The foggy Colombia-Peru-Brazil tri-border area is a trafficking hotspot. There, fishermen and aquaculture network intermediaries falsify the paperwork, designating them as captive-bred specimens.
Some take protected species to Peru, where restrictions are more lenient.
Last year, in Operation Horus, to control trafficking, Brazilian authorities seized 7,300 freshwater ornamental fish found on board a boat in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon.
About 50 plastic tubs contained red and blue cardinal tetras, horsetails, and iridescent pencil fish, among others.
Transport was valued at $36,000. In 2019, as part of Operation Killifish, Brazilian federal police intercepted 32 packages of killifish eggs, including endangered varieties, destined for Asia, Europe, and the United States.
The report of the Convention on Biological Diversity indicated up to 30 thousand arapaimas are trafficked to Hong Kong each year.
They are among the largest freshwater fish in the world, displayed in tanks and ponds. Another favorite among collectors is the huge, gleaming silver Arowana, which evokes the dragons depicted in Asian folklore in the way it undulates in the water.
It is believed to have magical powers as it keeps away evil spirits and attracts good luck, happiness and wealth. It is almost impossible to measure how much the numbers have declined, or the current state of conservation of these and other fish that live in Amazonian rivers.
Latin America has also become the most recent supplier of turtles, tortoises, and tortoises to China. Once eaten only at rare festive feasts, they have become an affordable, casual meal.
These reptiles are also an ingredient in traditional medicine and popular pets. “Turtles, tortoises, and tortoises are currently illegally captured by the hundreds and smuggled across the Amazon River via Peru and other countries,” says Payán.
In a 2019 seizure, Bolivian environmental police received information from a parcel company about three suspicious packages.
Inside, they found plastic bags filled with 1,359 matamatá turtles., strange-looking creatures that resemble a pile of debris and sold as pets for large sums.
In Peru, a conservation project allows local communities to sell a percentage of tracajás, freshwater turtles born in captivity, and release the rest.
However, more than the incubators are capable of producing are being sold. From 2010 to 2018, Hong Kong imported 1,802,369 turtles, says WCS’s Valencia.
This triggered investigations into trafficking and money laundering. The account of a Latin American exporter had an unexplained sum of 6 million dollars from China.
Many other species from the Amazon are smuggled into Asia: frogs, lizards, alligators, monkeys, iguanas, songbirds, and more. The Chinese are also promoting large-scale hunting for bushmeat. One example, revealed in Facebook posts, exposed crocodiles being killed “at the hands of the China Railway Construction Corporation “. The company is building the 595 km Rurrenabaque highway in Bolivia. In a 2019 IUCN report , Bolivian biologist Nuno Soares disclosed that Chinese workers hired local people to hunt everything from deer, peccaries, armadillos, tapirs, and monkeys to turtles and snakes.
Profitable trade fueled by corruption
Difficult terrain and porous borders facilitate illegal shipments to China. “Everything about the forest – its size, how difficult it is to traverse, how hot and humid it is – makes law enforcement much more difficult,” says Ferreira.
It’s a problem that has plagued law enforcement for decades. An official from the Bolivian Forestry Police described the difficulty to BBC reporters: “We can walk there and [traders] will leave in helicopters or small planes, or by boat across rivers.” “We know they are doing this, but what can we do to stop them?”
In 2020, an investigation published by the IUCN and the Earth League International (ELI), a non-profit intelligence and anti-trafficking and environmental crime organization, reported that “criminals operate established routes and sometimes bribe high-ranking police”.
Other investigations have found corruption at nearly every level, with government, law enforcement, police and customs officials, and even prosecutors under investigation, according to Mongabay.
The ELI/IUCN report identified at least three transnational organized criminal organizations operating in Bolivia, including the Putian Gang, a South American gang of the Chinese Fujian mafia.
However, it is Colombia that has the strongest criminal structures in South America, forged during decades of civil war.
It works like this: intermediaries contact hunters and transporters, placing orders. They set up regional animal collection centers, administer bribes and move their wild goods, dead or alive, from rainforests to lightly guarded borders, then on to airports and seaports.
Exporters practice a wide repertoire of tactics to smuggle banned species, with large shipments requiring top-notch organization and assistance.
Smugglers mix endangered animals with those that are legally traded or bred in captivity. They send animals through the mail, collude with airline or shipping staff to switch boxes after an inspection, or hide animals or their parts in secret compartments inside shipping containers.
Usually, traffickers use altered or forged documents to facilitate transportation.
Criminal networks and illicit entrepreneurs often use shell companies to send profitable remittances abroad. For example, a 2021 investigation revealed that at least two of Loreto’s more than 20 licensed exporters are front companies used by traffickers. Most of the others were arrested for illegal trade but still remain in business.
InSight Crime quotes a former Brazilian official on the highly lucrative illegal trade in aquariums: “Exporters could earn up to $10 million without any of the fish they ship overseas being traced.”
While criminals are well funded, the fight is not: “Many airports don’t even have an X-ray to monitor luggage,” says Freeland’s Ferreira. In 2019, there were just 50 enforcement officers in Bolivia to protect an area twice the size of Spain.
WCS’s Reuter notes that few customs inspectors have the extensive training or knowledge necessary to recognize a large number of trafficked species from the Amazon Basin.
Animals taken from the wild that are slaughtered, turned into jewelry, or sold as very young animals (such as tiny translucent baby fish, a fraction of an inch long) can be nearly impossible to identify, except for experts.
It is common for the few traffickers caught to receive only a “pat” – a fine – says Adrian Reuter, regional coordinator of wildlife trafficking in Latin America for the WCS. He adds that “even if it’s in the legislation, you won’t go to jail, you can find a way”.
Trade continues to grow, says Payán, the feline biologist.
Facing The Threat
Wildlife trafficking has been elevated to the level of a serious national security issue in some Amazonian nations, including Colombia .
But progress remains uncertain, and fighting crime is dangerous for law enforcement and the local population.
In Iquitos, officials told us they were mobbed by hostile vendors as they entered open-air markets. Brazil and Colombia were the deadliest places in the world for environmental defenders from 2012 to 2020, with 317 and 290 murders respectively. In 2021, 138 activists were killed in Colombia .
“It is very important that countries recognize that wildlife trafficking is an organized crime, so that the same tools can be used to combat it ,” says Reuter.
High-level regional conferences have initiated this process. In 2019, 20 Latin American countries signed the Lima Declaration , committing to combating wildlife crime with stronger laws, better law enforcement, enforcement and shared intelligence. At a second conference in April 2022, banks and transport companies signed commitments to help prevent trafficking.
This incipient international cooperation is critical, says Ferreira. “Nature knows no political boundaries, and poachers certainly don’t either.”
There are other efforts to build regional coordination, including the International Wildlife Crime Consortium formed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Interpol ‘s I-24/7 global law enforcement reporting system.
Earlier this year, Colombia and Peru agreed to strengthen the fight against transnational organized crime. The Coalition to End Online Wildlife Trafficking, a group of companies and conservation organizations, is collaborating to close down online markets. Ferreira is part of a new special investigation group to fight jaguar trafficking.
The potential damage to the Amazon biome could be profoundly far-reaching. Ferreira calls the illegal wildlife trade “one of the biggest threats to biodiversity”.
In her work in Brazil, she has seen firsthand how wildlife “extraction” disrupts intertwined biological systems, with devastating collateral damage. “It can collapse the ecosystems we depend on,” she says.
For now, there is still hope. Experts point out that a growing segment of Chinese society is in favor of increased wildlife protection.
It’s still early enough to turn the tide. “We have not reached a crisis point similar to what is happening in Asia and Africa,” says Elizabeth Bennett at WCS, adding that “we could reach that point if we don’t act”.