Wildlife crime in Bolivia and Suriname poses serious threat to unique species
Wildlife poaching and trafficking pose a serious threat to unique species in the Amazon countries of Bolivia and Suriname, according to a new study commissioned by IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands. The species most targeted are jaguars, birds and reptiles, sea turtles and a range of animals that are killed for human consumption (bushmeat). According to the study, this illegal wildlife trade is fuelled by major infrastructure development.
“Until recently, very little was known about wildlife poaching and trafficking in Bolivia and Suriname”, says Liliana Jauregui from IUCN NL. “This report aimed to fill this critical gap. For the first time, we have an assessment that helps us understand the threats and provides clues on how to tackle the illegal trade.”
The report identifies jaguar poaching, illegal pet trade and illegal bushmeat trade as key wildlife crime issues for both countries. In Suriname, the poaching of sea turtle eggs, which are considered a delicacy, poses an additional threat.
Surge in jaguar trafficking
“The most worrying trend we found was the surge in trafficking of jaguar parts, in particular fangs”, says Jauregui. This appears to be driven almost entirely by Chinese demand, to process jaguar teeth, meat and bones into medicine and jewellery.
In Bolivia, the seizure information shows a significant rise in jaguar trafficking since 2012. Between 2014 and 2016 the Bolivian postal service, Ecobol, discovered 300 jaguar products in 16 shipments, all destined for China. Fourteen of these were sent by Chinese citizens working in Bolivia.
In Suriname, there are indications that Chinese individuals were buying jaguar parts as early as 2003. The situation may have worsened in 2018. Research suggests that a network of Chinese people is involved in trafficking jaguar parts from the interior to Paramaribo for processing, using supermarkets, jewellery stores and other shops as cover. Social media such as Facebook and WeChat are used to advertise products.
Today there are an estimated 2,000-3,000 jaguars left in the wild in Bolivia. The number of jaguars in Suriname is unknown.
Jauregui: “Although the issue of jaguar trafficking is on the radar of some of the key government agencies, capacity is simply too thin: for all of Bolivia’s 1,099 million km2, just 50 police officers are in charge of protecting wildlife.” Despite this, a recent successful prosecution brings hope. “In November 2018 two Chinese citizens were sentenced to four and three years in prison respectively, for the trafficking of 185 jaguar fangs.”
Aside from the more recent trend in jaguar trafficking, illegal trafficking of wildlife as pets and for human consumption has been an issue for decades but is also undergoing changes.
Historically the wildlife trade in Latin America served both national and international pet markets, predominantly in the US and Europe. As a result of strict regulation this export has been curbed, but there remains a significant domestic pet market. Parrots are the most targeted species for this trade.
The illegal trade in live animals is associated with immense suffering. Animals taken from the wild are smuggled in thermoses, nylon stockings and even underpants, stuffed into toilet paper tubes, hair curlers and hubcaps. For each individual purchased as a pet, an estimated 8 to 10 animals die in the process of capture and transport to market.
Bushmeat consumption is widespread in rural areas in both Bolivia and Suriname. Indigenous communities are legally allowed to hunt wildlife for their own consumption, but commercial hunting is illegal. The report, however, offers evidence that such trade is prevalent and has emerged in response to new demand by Chinese workers associated with the large infrastructure projects that have sprung up in the region over the past years. One source claimed that it is common for Chinese people working in rural areas to hire locals to hunt bushmeat for them. Targeted animals range from deer, peccaries, tapir and monkeys to armadillos and snakes.
Within Suriname there is an ongoing illegal trade in sea turtle eggs for human consumption. Six cases were identified between 2008 and 2017, involving 39,748 eggs seized. One seizure alone involved 23,500 eggs found on a boat on the Marowijne River near their collection site, Galibi. Given that just a tiny fraction of illegal shipments is generally detected, this number represents the tip of the iceberg.
Four of the seven existing species of sea turtles, all listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List, nest on Suriname’s beaches.
Strikingly, the report points to the infrastructural developments in Bolivia and Suriname as a key factor driving wildlife poaching. New roads are opening up the forest to poachers, while the influx of workers (often Chinese nationals) in infrastructure and mining industries, often creates a new demand for bushmeat. Some engage directly in poaching themselves as well.
In Bolivia there is a highly controversial plan to build a new highway through Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). From evidence collected to date, the highway as proposed will inevitably prompt increased hunting and trafficking of increasingly rare and vulnerable wildlife.
The report highlights several recommendations to counter the issue of wildlife crime. Specifically, law enforcement capacity should be enhanced. Also, communities can play a key role in prevention of poaching. Jauregui: “They are the eyes and ears on the ground.” Moreover, effective collaboration between central, regional and local authorities should be improved, as well as transboundary cooperation. Finally, further research could help identify the hotspots for wildlife poaching and trade. However, as Jauregui notes: “Approaches to tackle the problem need to urgently be developed before the region loses some of its most iconic species. The clock is ticking.”