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Home » Trafficking in São Paulo: Smuggling Wildlife from Brazil

Trafficking in São Paulo: Smuggling Wildlife from Brazil

Juliana Machado Ferreira moves quickly through the chaotic expanse of tables and stalls in Vila Mara, one of the busiest street markets in São Paulo. 

Vendors display shoes, clothing, piles of ripe tomatoes, mangoes, and other produce, household items made from cheap plastic, and various sundries. At least that’s what’s immediately obvious.

Machado Ferreira is following a small group of men moving towards the interior of the market, each of them carrying a large and bulky type of fabric. Suddenly the men start to run, and she runs after them.

She takes down the closest one, even though he is a big man, and the thin woman is a fraction of her size. 

A set of plainclothes policemen handcuff the men, while another set of policemen enters the center of the market. There, they aim to arrest other men. 

Some run through the streets that radiate out from the market, throwing their goods into rubbish bins or under vehicles, but the police cars are already almost a dozen blocking the roads, and there is nowhere to run. 

They are captured and the police search the area to recover what they have thrown away.

The Vila Mara market has a well-known reputation for selling a wide range of stolen goods and contraband, including illegally captured wildlife. 

Tips from whistleblowers proved effective: when police opened the bags and boxes they found cages, wooden crates, and cardboard boxes filled with glittering tropical birds, prehistoric-looking green iguanas ( Iguana iguana ), and other lizards and tortoises from the Arrau river ( Podocnemis expanse ). 

Some are species on the verge of extinction that barely survive in their current Brazilian habitats.

Machado Ferreira joins the 20 or so policemen who sweep the area and find animals piled up in hot cars and hidden in a house: the sellers do not bring all their products to the market.

In the end, the police confiscate 185 animals. Most are birds, which are the most traded animals in Brazil. 

(There is little data on environmental crime in the country, but a study published in 2012 found that birds accounted for 24 of the 30 species most frequently seized by the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency between 2005 and 2009.)

38 million victims per year

This contraband matches the demographics of wildlife that has been seized in other similar raids. Most of the seized animals are young. 

Some are dead; others become limp, injured, sick, or lose scales and feathers. All survivors are dehydrated. Most have changed hands several times since being uprooted from their natural habitat. 

Transport is often grueling: the animals are placed in bags, which are strapped to the back of a motorbike, stowed in storage boxes on buses, or thrown into the trunk of a car, all in the scorching heat.

Birds’ beaks are often taped together to silence the animals; Newborn turtles also often have their heads and feet “glued” to their shells and are often stacked inside tubes.

Machado Ferreira is part of a team that analyzes the animals and offers medical treatment. 

Since it’s Sunday (most market raids are on weekends), these animals won’t have veterinary care until Monday morning, when triage centers open.

In the meantime, birds, turtles, and other creatures will be transported and stored at a police station or warehouse; they are sometimes sent to animal protection organizations.

Without sustained care and a proper diet, many more will die, and even fewer will have the chance to be returned to their home countries.

This initiative, which took place in 2009, was one of the first and largest operations that Machado Ferreira has participated in the date.

It was conceived by government agencies working with SOS Fauna, a non-profit organization that works undercover to fight against animal husbandry and illicit trafficking in Brazil provides first aid to victims, and tries to ensure, where possible, that confiscated animals are released back into their habitat.

It’s a huge mission. Brazil has the greatest variety of creatures of any country in the world and at least 627 of its species are threatened with extinction. 

This broad biodiversity translates into easy money for underworld criminal networks that also function for illicit drugs, weapons, and human trafficking operations.

More than 38 million animals are taken from Brazil’s jungles, savannas, forests, and wetlands each year, according to estimates by the Brazilian National Network against Trafficking in Wild Animals (RENCTAS) – and that’s not counting tropical fish or invertebrates. About four-fifths of these animals are birds, and thousands of young are plucked from their nests.

After capture, the animals travel from local traders to intermediaries and finally to large Brazilian and international traders. A study by RENCTAS found that 40 percent of the approximately 400 criminal animal smuggling networks in Brazil are also involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

The country’s wildlife black market is valued at a whopping $2 billion a year, according to the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA).

The sheer number of animals seized each year overwhelms the country’s poorly funded rehabilitation centers, so confiscated wild animals are shared by commercial breeders, conservation organizations, sanctuaries, zoos, and even private individuals. 

Some are slaughtered, and organizations including the Brazilian Society of Ornithology have proposed the euthanasia of all animals that are not endangered species. It’s a policy that could kill 26,000 birds a year in São Paulo alone.

Fighting this trade in trafficking centers like São Paulo is extremely complicated: someone is arrested here, and a new one appears elsewhere. 

“There are markets like this in literally every city in Brazil,” says Ferreira Machado, but most wild animals are sold in the big cities – São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Sales have grown more covert over the last few years, as government agencies pay more attention to environmental crime, says Fabio Costa, a forensic specialist at the São Paulo Federal Police. 

More smugglers are selling their homes or moving their operations from warehouse to warehouse to avoid detection.

Fueling a greedy domestic tourism and global pet market

Brazil’s wildlife is hunted or captured for one of four reasons, including domestic consumption, either for meat or medicine. 

Brazil has a long history of traditional medicine that incorporates a wide range of animal products, indigenous remedies have been fused with African medicinal traditions brought to the country by the four million slaves transported to Brazil by European colonizers.

When scientists investigated the markets in 2007, they found 283 species that were used to treat everything from insect bites and asthma to cancer, animals that included emerald tree boas, seahorses, beetles, and Brazilian tapir. Almost all have been captured in the wild and 75 of these “medicinal” species are threatened with extinction.

Animals are also killed and sold in Brazil as souvenirs or part of trinkets: jaguar skins; bright parrot feathers; teeth or bones used in religious rituals; stuffed sea turtles or caimans; alligator skin boots, wallets, and purses; tortoise shells, hair combs and jewelry; and fashion accessories made from skins, shells, shells and various other animal parts. 

The production and sale of these items are embedded in tradition and, for the most part, are not considered a crime. It is common to see police officers in markets where these things are sold without taking any action against the sellers.

International tourists also buy these items. Most don’t realize that buying and carrying these things home in your luggage can have serious legal consequences – yet customs officials detect very little of this trade.

Other Brazilian dealers target scientists and “bio-prospectors” – those looking for new medicinal compounds from natural sources; Venomous snakes, spiders, frogs, and insects are particularly coveted for this purpose.

But the illegal pet trade accounts for the largest share of the country’s wildlife trade.

Inside the pet trade

Unlike many other countries, Brazil has a huge market from domestic animals to wild animals: more are sold within its own borders than are smuggled abroad.

Brazilians have a long history of keeping wild animals as pets, especially birds and monkeys, calling xerimbabos: “something beloved”. 

Machado Ferreira observes that “It is part of our culture to own parrots, birds, and macaws.” Among the most desirable are those with brilliant plumage and enchanting voices, such as the true iron cracker ( Saltator similis ), a type of cardinal, and the ground canary ( Sicalis flaveola Typhochlaena amma ), and various types of sloths. collared monkey ( Bradypus torquatus ), and hand-sized capuchin monkey ( Cebus apella ).

In 2011, authorities detected a new trend in smuggling: 16,000 fish were intercepted at Heathrow Airport carrying £4.5 million worth of liquid cocaine: the cocaine was dissolved inside plastic bags which were then placed in bags containing live fish – including arowanas, a fish native to the Amazon.

RENCTAS estimates that between 75 and 90 percent of smuggled animals do not survive capture and transport, but the incentives for crime remain high. 

Drug traffickers work within a similar model: despite a substantial loss of “merchandise”, the sale of wild animals brings a large profit.

report filed with the US Congress has estimated the value of some animals that are commonly confiscated at US points of entry. One of the most valuable was the Lear’s Macaw, a much-hunted bird that subsists in a few small patches of habitat in the easternmost part of Brazil.

Only around 1,200 individuals of this species remain in the wild, with collectors willing to pay up to $60,000 to get one. Other less endangered macaws are bought for a few dollars in the Amazon rainforest and can be sold for $2,000 to $3,000 in Europe. Iguanas can be worth up to $10,000 each.

Stop the flow of traded animals

An important gap in Brazilian law makes the effective application of the law difficult. On the one hand, federal statutes say that “Killing, chasing, hunting, trapping, and using specimens of wild fauna, whether native or on a migratory route, without due authorization, license or authorization from the competent authority, or in disagreement with this constitutes a crime ”, but on the other hand, the law allows for captive breeding – an easy way to capture and process animals illegally.

Well over 1,000 wild animal breeders had obtained licenses from the Ministry of the Environment (IBAMA) to sell animals when they were last identified five years ago. 

This legal market “washes” animals taken from the wild, very effectively, through a multitude of methods, says Costa.

Certificates are forged and duplicated, washers are forged – and then there are fraudulent customs declarations and bribes. Furthermore, Costa says that enforcement personnel or customs officials often do not know the difference between captive-bred and wild-caught species.

Understaffing is another huge problem. IBAMA operates an understaffed Wildlife Center in each Brazilian state; each is responsible for the management, licensing, and inspection of hundreds of breeders, traders, and zoos.

Although there are many dedicated people working in these centers, there is no way to respond to all requests. Financing constraints mean they often don’t have the vehicles or fuel to go and do inspections. 

“Monitoring” comes in the form of annual reports from breeders who self-register their animals in documents that often contain dubious statistics – or are never filled out at all.

Wildlife breeders have a huge incentive to cheat: despite their high overheads, so are their profits, while in the country the risks of trafficking are very low.

Last summer, the United Nations General Assembly urged its Member States to take strong measures to prevent, combat, and eradicate the illegal wildlife trade “on both sides of supply and demand”, referring to the wild animals and plants as an “irreplaceable element of the Earth’s natural systems”. In September, the UN adopted new sustainability targets regarding the illegal wildlife trade.

With the attention of the UN Security Council, the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and other organizations, many countries are now on high alert and cooperating with countries that share their borders.

“We see this vile trade pushing endangered species to the brink of extinction,” said Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, in September.

 “We are watching trafficking and poaching reduces biodiversity, destroying fragile ecosystems, threatening lives – stealing lives, fueling corruption and undermining governments… To change a game of this magnitude, a much better global response is going to have to be needed.

– and all possible support must be provided to countries and communities that are on the front lines.”

To date, discussions of wildlife trafficking have focused primarily on elephants and rhinos that are being killed in large numbers across Africa. But wildlife trafficking is a problem for countless species around the world – and the Latin American trade has been largely ignored until now.

To solve this problem, Freeland Brasil has become part of the coalition that is pushing the new South American Wildlife Enforcement Network (SudWEN ), which is working with governments and public prosecutors in eight countries to combat poaching and the trade of illegal wildlife, marine species, and plants, including illegal logging.

Closer to home, the São Paulo prosecutor’s office is organizing a national task force that will include military and federal police and environmental agencies in the fight against wildlife trafficking. 

The Public Prosecutor’s Office is also launching an environmental crimes database to help enforce tougher penalties for repeat offenders.

The situation of Brazilian trafficked animals

Most severely traumatized animals apprehended by customs officials and police will never again roam or fly free through rainforests, savannahs, or swamps. Only between a quarter and half of the confiscated animals are released back into the wild.

The rest will live the rest of their lives in captivity, sometimes in very poor conditions; some go to zoos, and some end up with commercial breeders or anyone else who takes them. Many do not survive.

Repatriating animals is neither simple nor cheap. While some poachers are caught in the act, most animals are confiscated far from where they were hunted, so it’s impossible to know where they came from. Even if an endangered animal lives within a very limited range, returning to its proper habitat is complicated.

One example: at a checkpoint in Quadra, west of São Paulo, the police discovered 192 baby blue parrots (Amazona aestiva) in the trunk of a car. 

A year later, an unknown number of the approximately 100 birds assigned to one veterinarian had died, and the 20 received by another veterinarian had been stolen. Three of the birds that SOS Brasil had taken in died, but the remaining 69 were ready to be released. 

The birds are endemic to the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, but this is a big state – rescue teams had to decide where the seized birds would be able to thrive and where they could be safely released without fear of immediate recapture. In this case, studies have pointed out that the best place to release the parrots would be where they were originally captured,

Machado Ferreira’s final work was devoted to conservation genetics, and she is using this knowledge to help determine home ranges for confiscated birds. 

As animals adapt to the local conditions they live in – they may grow more feathers to survive in colder temperatures, or at higher altitudes, for example – they may develop unique genetic markers. 

These markers provide a scientific way to infer where animals may have originated, and to determine where they should be released to give them the best chance of survival.

Currently, most healthy animals that are confiscated are released by the Brazilian government without much regard for their habitat. 

Machado Ferreira says that releasing these animals without knowing their geographic origin could be deadly. Being dropped off in a new “neighborhood” can expose these animals to new diseases. 

They can also carry new germs or parasites that infect local wild populations – or they can transmit them to humans. Or, their inclusion in an unfamiliar habitat, can disturb the existing social structure and negatively affect reproduction.

Removing thousands of animals from an ecosystem causes immeasurable damage. There is the pain and trauma endured by millions of individuals, most of whom ultimately die, but there are broader implications. 

Diminished wild populations can become pure – with a limited gene pool, the remaining individuals become weak and susceptible to inherited diseases. If heavily hunted and trafficked, iguanas, birds, turtles, and monkeys can completely disappear from a region – or even the planet itself.

The damage caused by trafficking to one species can spill over and damage a wider habitat. Removing some or all individuals from a keystone species can throw an entire ecosystem out of balance. 

For example, the loss of a bird species that eat certain fruits – and disperses their seeds – could threaten fruit tree species and all the plants and animals that associate with them, disrupting natural systems that have been fine-tuned over the years. millennia.

What’s more problematic is that many of these ecological relationships are subtle or not yet studied by science, so we don’t know which of our actions can most easily destroy the wildlife chain.

All living beings, including humans, depend on these delicate living systems, observes Machado Ferreira.

“Our agriculture, our water depends on a healthy ecosystem”, she says, and in Brazil, these natural systems are being devastated, with climate change favoring drought; forests to be replaced by plantations, farms, infrastructure, and other development – ​​and 38 million wild creatures are poached each year to be sold across the country, or the world, primarily as pets.

These are wild animals, says Machado Ferreira, which we should not consider as pets at all. “Wild species are expected to evolve over time as dynamic entities in ever-changing environments. [They] are not [are] meant to be anyone’s amusement. ”

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