RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – A lucrative crime with weak penalties, the trafficking of wild animals has become a R$2.5 billion-a-year (US$1.25 billion-a-year) business in Brazil.
“The trafficking of wildlife, which includes flora, fauna and their products, is the third-largest illegal activity in the world after arms and drugs,” says Raulff Lima, the executive coordinator of the NGO Rede Nacional de Combate ao Tráfico de Animais Silvestres (RENCTAS), headquartered in Brasília. “And here in Brazil it’s no different.”
Each year, 38 million wild animals are taken from nature in Brazil and about four million are subsequently sold. For every 10 trafficked animals, only one survives, as 90% die while being transported.
These figures come from the “Relatório Nacional sobre o Tráfico de Fauna Silvestre” (National Report on the Trafficking of Wild Animals) produced by RENCTAS in 2001, considered to be the best survey documenting the problem of bio-piracy in Brazil.
The NGO has not updated its data, as it is currently focused on two other studies – one about the diseases transmitted by wild animals and their impacts, and another on raising animals for commercial and scientific purposes in Brazil.
“Before the advent of RENCTAS, the illegal wildlife trade was considered a less important environmental crime, even less so than it is today,” Lima says. “After the report was released in 2001, it became possible to conclude that this activity was contributing to the extinction of many threatened species – for example, the Spix’s Macaw – and supplying an international wildlife trafficking network.”
The Spix’s Macaw is the same one featured in the animated film “Rio,” which called attention to the issue in 2011, drawing 6.5 million Brazilians to theaters to become the country’s second-highest grossing film of the year.
There are now only 79 of these macaws in the world and all are being raised in captivity, with five bred in Brazil.
A project by the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação e Biodiversidade aims to bring these breeders together and release approximately 20 Spix’s Macaws that were born in captivity into the wild by 2017.
Each year, only 250,000 of all of the animals taken from the wild are subsequently confiscated by the authorities, such as the Federal Police, the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (IBAMA) and state environmental police forces, accounting for only 0.65% of the total.
IBAMA confiscates about 30,000 animals annually.
“Despite the fact that we now have a series of agencies to crack down on trafficking, we are still far from the ideal situation for combating the illegal trade and the traffickers,” Lima says.
The lack of a national wildlife management policy, coupled with scant funding, encourages this type of crime, Lima adds.
In 2011, IBAMA suffered further budget cuts “due to the strong contingency plans of the federal government in the face of the global economic crisis,” according to the agency’s press office.
“We need to improve the number, and the practices of IBAMA’s agents, through competitive exams, and increase the amount of funding available for environmental control and monitoring,” says Guilerme Destro, an environmental analyst with IBAMA’s department of inspections and operations.
Punishment that fits the crime
Pending before the House of Representatives is a bill written by Rep. Sarney Filho that seeks to distinguish between minor and major international traffickers, with specific penalties depending on the severity of the crime.
“The problem lies precisely in applying these penalties, because this type of environmental crime is still seen by the judiciary as a lesser infraction, which allows for alternative forms of punishment,” Lima says.
To increase the penalties or fines imposed upon animal traffickers, the Federal Police have charged criminals with other types of crimes, such as conspiracy to break the law or damaging public property, in addition to applying the environmental law.
Currently, those arrested for selling animals are fined R$500 (US$250) per animal. If a species is endangered, the fine increases to R$5,000 (US$2,500). Convicted traffickers also face a sentence of six months to a year in jail.
“Right now, a person caught selling wild animals can be arrested in the morning and be free in the afternoon because they paid the bail plus the fine,” says Daniel Marchesi, the veterinarian responsible for the Wild Animal Screening Center (CETAS), where animals confiscated in the state of Rio de Janeiro are taken. “Despite the penalty, paying bail allows a person to leave prison and rejoin the trade.”
A majority of the animals confiscated by inspectors (78%) are released and 9% go to the CETAS in each state. The rest are sent to zoos, research institutes and other destinations, according to RENCTAS.
At the CETAS facilities, the animals are treated before being released or sent to zoos.
But there are cases of animals that spend years at the screening centers, such as a female hawk named “Frangão.” The bird has a problem with one of her wings and cannot fly long distances. She belonged to a family, who turned her in to the CETAS in Rio de Janeiro.
“Many of the 2,000 animals here are unable to rejoin nature, so they stay here with us,” Marchesi says.
The Rio CETAS is no longer taking in animals because it is in the process of moving. The center is located in Seropédica, in a region where construction is being completed on a portion of the highway connecting the Port of Itaguaí with the region of Itaboraí.
The highway is being built next to the CETAS facilities and the loud noises of vehicles will disturb the animals.
Birds are most commonly traded
The illegal wildlife trade is driven by private collectors, zoos, pet shops, scientific researchers and the trade in wildlife products (leather, skins, feathers, etc.).
Of the 30 species most commonly confiscated by IBAMA from 2005 to 2009, birds accounted for 80%, followed by reptiles (16.67%).
“The majority are birds, like songbirds such as Saffron Finches, Buff-throated Saltators, White-necked Thrushes, Ultramarine Grosbeaks, Chestnut-bellied Seed-finches, etc.” Destro says.
“When we think about the illegal trade in animals, we’re not just talking about major transactions, but also about the small breeders who, for example, buy one of these birds and don’t even know that it’s illegal to keep them if the seller doesn’t have authorization from IBAMA,” Marchesi says.
Horse trainer Rodrigo Fernandes, 30, who lives in Três Rios, in the interior of Rio de Janeiro state, has purchased birds taken directly from nature.
“Through my own ignorance, I had birds that were not legal,” he says. “Now, all I have is a White-necked Thrush registered with IBAMA, with all of the paperwork up to date. The bird was raised in captivity. In other words, it wasn’t in the wild and then suddenly captured and put in a cage.”
Breeders who operate legally strive to inform customers about the importance of documentation, Fernandes says.
Yet, open markets selling wild animals are still commonplace in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro alone, there are more than 100, according to RENCTAS.
“Society can contribute to the fight against animal trafficking by not acquiring wild animals taken from nature, and by reporting situations involving the unauthorized trade of wild animals to the IBAMA Green Line (0800-618080),” says Destro, adding that most confiscations are the result of tips from the public.