Smuggling's Wild Side in Brazil
Animal Trafficking Sucks the Life From Amazon Rain Forest
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
BELEM, Brazil -- On the docks of this sweltering Amazon city, jars containing
the purportedly medicinal -- but prohibited -- body parts and oils of endangered
animals such as the manatee, Amazon turtle and pink river dolphin can be bought in plain sight. Whisper something about live animals, and hidden cages come out
from behind the counters.
Edivaldo, a weather-beaten fruit salesman and part-time animal poacher,
recently offered a foreign visitor an assortment of protected parrots and
small jungle finches
for the equivalent of a few dollars. Then he pulled out his ace: a baby black tamarin -- a tiny primate smaller than the palm of a man's hand, worth about $4,000 in the
illegal pet trade. He was asking $35 -- with tips on how to smuggle it onto international flights at no extra cost. "And I can get more if you need them," said Edivaldo,
who wouldn't give his last name.
What Colombia is to cocaine, Brazil has become to the burgeoning illegal-animal
trade. A new study, the first of its kind, indicates that animal trafficking
third-most-lucrative form of global smuggling after drugs and arms. The report -- issued in October by RENCTAS, the Portuguese acronym for the National
Network to Fight Traffic in Wild Animals, a respected nonprofit environmental group based in Brasilia -- estimates that animal smuggling has become a $15
billion-a-year industry worldwide, with Brazil accounting for the single largest source of animals, roughly 37 percent.
The majority of the animals are spirited out of their habitats to overseas
scientists or pet collectors. But increasingly, they are also being sold
domestically as pets or
for furs, ornaments and medicinal potions. According to the report, an estimated 38 million creatures -- from insects and butterflies to alligators, panthers and
monkeys -- are removed from the wild in Latin America's largest country each year. Most of them come from here in the Amazon jungle -- the world's largest rain
forest, with the greatest diversity of animal and plant life on Earth.
Experts say that animal trafficking is sucking the life out of the Amazon
at a time when the rain forest is already facing an alarming increase in
controversial plans for new roads, gas pipelines and other development projects.
"Brazilian authorities have never been very concerned about the animal
trade, and now it is showing," said Dener Giovanini, executive director
"Although there are laws on the books against trafficking in animals, they are rarely enforced, and only a fraction of smuggled animals are caught -- and most of those
are dead by the time they are found.
"What we are seeing is a still-unknown level of damage to the most important
ecosystem in the world," he said. "You cannot drain the Amazon of its life
and expect it
to keep functioning normally."
Although no comparable studies are available, analysts estimate that
animal trafficking in the Amazon -- a practice dating to the first Portuguese
explorers, who toted scarlet macaws, leopards and others exotic beasts back to European zoos and private homes in the 16th century -- has been steadily increasing
over the last decade. The reason is simple: The animal trade is more lucrative than ever. Certain breeds of rare blue macaws, a type of Amazon parrot, sell for as
much as $70,000. The golden lion tamarin, a tiny primate, goes for $20,000 or more.
Belem, a sprawling metropolis of 1.3 million at the mouth of the Amazon
delta, is one of the hubs of the trade. The city boasts both a massive
port and international
airport essential to large-scale smuggling, and the wildlife being smuggled is literally in Belem's backyard.
Local police say about 40 percent of the animal smuggling in Brazil
is connected to drug traffickers. "They stow the animals on the same drug
boats and planes
heading to the U.S. or Europe," said Lt. Andre Absolao, division coordinator for the Belem Environmental Police, a branch of Brazil's military police. "They are
already involved in one illegal activity, so the risk of adding another is considered worth taking."
Authorities have found combating the illegal animal trade difficult
-- and sometimes deadly. Last week, a government environmental monitor,
Joao Dantas, was found
dead in the northeastern city of Nisia Floresta. Police say they believe his killing was linked to his attempts to crack down on poaching.
Critics say trafficking is growing in part because of lax enforcement
of existing laws. Indeed, although the sale of most wild-animal fats, oils
and skins is illegal in
Brazil, Belem's main market is a tableau of harvested animals. On the docks, which teem with vendors selling exotic tropical fruits and fresh-caught fish and shrimp,
one woman peddled the vagina of a pink river dolphin as a love potion. Manatee fat is widely available to aid runny noses. Also available are snake and frog oils,
toucan beaks and an array of potions and soaps made from the endangered Amazon turtle. All of them, plus live animals such as the baby tamarin, were offered for
sale not far from patrolling policemen.
Authorities say they are trying to curb animal trafficking through more
frequent raids on the docks and at airports. Although animal seizures in
Belem have almost
doubled -- to 4,982 in the first 10 months of the year, compared with 2,767 in 2000 -- officials concede they are catching only a fraction of the animal smugglers and
their live cargo. Furthermore, officials admit they rarely apply the $500-an-animal fine -- which increases to $5,000 for endangered species -- to small-time
poachers. "Most of the time they are desperately poor people who might sell a monkey" for a dollar or so to survive," Absolao said. "So generally, we let them go
with a warning. We arrest and fine the bigger fish, or those who mistreat the animals."
The poaching problem is not linked only to poverty. Authorities here
talk about the "Amazon culture" of keeping exotic pets -- often worth thousands
abroad but free for the taking here -- in even the most humble of homes. Environmental police estimate that 70 percent of Belem's residents keep at least one illegal
pet. "What are we going to do, go out and fine the entire city?" Absolao said. "It won't work. So we try to educate the children as much as we can, so they will go
home and tell their parents it's not right to keep these animals captive."
But the bigger problem is larger-scale, overseas smuggling, often to
scientific research centers in need of lab monkeys or interested in researching
medicinal properties of rare Amazon frogs and snakes.
Resources to snare such smugglers, however, are seriously limited. Officials
from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources,
IBAMA, say they are woefully understaffed and dedicate most of their resources to policing illegal logging or burning forests to clear land for subsistence agriculture.
Last week, for instance, IBAMA's field office in Belem sent most of
its 60 agents to work on a project to protect mahogany trees -- leaving
not one agent to counter
animal smuggling efforts for a sprawling state that makes up one-sixth of Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States.
"Of course there are more smugglers out there than we can catch, and
that is frustrating," said Lucimar Paixao, manager of the fauna division
at IBAMA's Belem
office. "But we're doing the best we can with what we have."