BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Government agents earlier this month dismantled a band of smugglers specializing in trafficking exotic birds, including many in danger of becoming extinct.
Authorities detained four suspects and rescued more than 350 species of cardinals, songbirds, and other wild birds during a joint operation carried out by the Federal Police, Argentine Customs Agency and animal protection organizations in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Entre Ríos, Paraná, and Santiago del Estero.
The operation again thrust the spotlight onto the world’s third-most lucrative trafficking activity – behind narcotics and weapons – according to the United Nations (UN).
Animal trafficking is a US$20 billion a year global business, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In Argentina, animal traffickers make US$100 million annually.
“Animal traffickers capture animals that are often destined for private homes because some people believe it’s much more interesting to bring a pet monkey to their homes than a dog or cat,” said Carlos Fernández Balboa, education coordinator at the Argentine Wildlife Foundation.
“Many Argentine species have become the object of a gigantic network of smugglers who supply the demand of clients who have a lot of money. There are people who want to have exotic animals at home simply to feel a different status or appear more eccentric or show sophistication – assuming they alone own a [particular animal]. These people are not conscious of the magnitude of the harm this [commerce] has on nature.”
There are 529 species in Argentina in danger of becoming extinct, according to the Argentine Wildlife Foundation.
Argentina shares the Gran Chaco Americano, a region covering 247.1 million acres, with Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. It’s an area that’s become a hotspot for animal traffickers since it is home to land turtles, finches, parrots, toucans, carayá monkeys, lizards, alligators and pumas, which are some of the most-sought after species on the market.
However, 80% of species captured by animal traffickers in the Gran Chaco Americano die before reaching the market, according to Argentina’s National Fauna Directorate.
The government has taken proactive steps to curtail animal trafficking, as Law 22.421 prohibits the sale of species captured illegally and mandates prison sentences between six months and two years for those found guilty of animal trafficking.
Authorities also urge Argentines with information regarding animal trafficking to contact the Argentine Wildlife Foundation or the Ministry of Security at 0800.555.5065.
Animal traffickers are trying to elude authorities nationwide. Karel Abelovsky, a national of the Czech Republic, was detained in December at Ezeiza International airport after Airport Security Police (PSA) found 24 wild animals, most of them reptiles, in his luggage.
PSA officers found animals protected under the International Convention on the Traffic of Wildlife Species (CITES), such as the small copper lizard, which is only found in the Achala Pampa area in the Córdoba province, in Abelovsky’s possession.
“There were venomous species and turtles stashed into rolled-up socks, hidden in clothes or in containers,” Police Chief Aníbal Onetto said.
Abelovsky is being tried on charges of aggravated attempted smuggling because the illegal animals may have posed a public health threat. Six other suspects who were arrested in connection with Abelovsky’s trafficking ring are awaiting trial.
Meantime, this past February in the province of Córdoba, authorities seized 884 illegally obtained rawhides from species including the silver fox, red alligator, mountain cat and guiña cat, dismantled an illegal wildlife workshop and charged one suspect with animal trafficking after finding 200 endangered animals in his possession.
Authorities deliver the majority of rescued animals to the Buenos Aires Zoo, where they receive treatment. If the animals aren’t physically able to be returned to the wild, they are housed at the zoo, where they are used to raise the public’s awareness of animal trafficking, said Claudio Bertonatti, the zoo’s director.
“The most important thing is that people become informed and adopt a responsible attitude when it comes to choosing their pets,” Fernández Balboa said. “As a consumer, one needs to show solidarity with natural resources, understanding that using wildlife as pets is not acceptable.”