Wildlife Trafficking’s New Front: Latin America

For more than two million years, jaguars have inhabited a wide range of habitats in the Americas. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

By Elizabeth L. Bennett
October 11, 2018

[Note: this is the third in a series of blogs by WCS staff published during the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference: London 2018, which runs October 11–12]

The devastating decline began long ago. There were an estimated 100,000 tigers at the turn of the 20th century, but a series of threats have taken their toll — from widespread loss of habitat and sport hunting to the recent demand for their exotic pelts and body parts, valued in traditional medicine, which has put these big cats squarely in the crosshairs of wildlife poachers and the criminal networks that sustain them. Altogether, fewer than 4,000 remain in the wild.

Both within and between the continents of Asia and Africa, decades of sustained wildlife trafficking have had a catastrophic effect not only on tigers, but also on rhinos, elephants, parrots, and other iconic megafauna. To take but one example, a 2013 study published in PLoS ONE showed the African forest elephant population declined by a staggering 62 percent over 10 years due largely to the demand from Asia’s ivory markets.

Today, as governments, conservationists, and businesses gather in London for the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, we have an opportunity to head off a new wildlife trafficking crisis emerging in Latin America.

Anteaters are another trafficked species in Latin America today. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

As it stands, we haven’t reached a crisis point there akin to what is occurring in Asia and Africa. We might if we don’t act. Wildlife trafficking appears to be a rapidly growing problem in Latin America involving several high-value taxa and increasing pressure due to international demand. That’s why, at this week’s meetings, Latin America should be a key point of emphasis.

The relationship between the region and Asia has undergone a dramatic change in recent years. Two-way annual trade between the continents has doubled over the last decade. With this expansion, we have also seen an explosion of transpacific organized crime — including trafficking in people, drugs, and weapons, as well as wildlife.

It’s impacting the jaguar. For more than two million years, these big cats have inhabited a wide range of habitats in the Americas, from deserts to rainforests, from high hills to low beaches. But now, experts are increasingly concerned that jaguar poaching is on the rise in a number of countries and it appears Asian middlemen are buying up many of the most prized parts — including teeth and claws — to send overseas. All such trade is illegal.

It’s not just the jaguar, either. It’s Andean bears and anteaters. It’s fish such as the endangered totoaba, which is coveted for its swim bladder (one of the world’s most valuable wildlife products by weight). It’s sharks, which are currently killed at an industrial scale in the waters off Latin America to supply the Asian market with fins for shark fin soup.

Andean bears have been trafficked for use of their body parts in traditional medicines. Photo: Rob Wallace/WCS.

Recognizing this emerging issue, WCS developed a white paper as the first step toward better understanding the situation. The report identified a number of challenges.

For one, many Latin American governments and regional organizations currently pay insufficient attention to these crimes, in part because they do not view wildlife trafficking as a high enough priority. Even the environmental sector focuses more on the direct impacts of Asian investments in areas such as oil and construction.

We must encourage these stakeholders to change their views, in part by fostering a deeper understanding of the close tie between wildlife crime and regional security — including links to other forms of organized crime, impacts on the rule of law, and the role of corruption, not to mention the increased transmission of infectious diseases and the proliferation of invasive species that could result if wildlife trafficking is not addressed.

Right now, beyond a general knowledge of the principal countries and species involved, information on wildlife trafficking in Latin America is scarce and officials all-too-often lack the understanding, skills, and equipment to gather it. These agencies must draw on expertise from Asia, including personnel with the appropriate language and cultural knowledge, to gain an appreciation of the extent and dynamics of existing networks.

Sharks are currently killed at an industrial scale in the waters off Latin America to supply the Asian market with fins for shark fin soup. Photo: ©Keith Ellenbogen.

Today, international cooperation on wildlife trafficking is also weak in some cases. Latin American agencies insufficiently share wildlife crime intelligence with other countries in a proactive manner. To address this, trust must be built and communication lines must be developed both within Latin America and between Latin America and Asia. Formal legal mechanisms that facilitate the flow of information, like Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties, can help. So can joint events that bring these groups together.

Within many Latin American countries, the legal frameworks designed to manage and protect wildlife tend to be complex, poorly understood, and implemented inconsistently. To address these problems, each country must develop a legal reform agenda. These would pinpoint weaknesses and identify ancillary legislation (e.g., addressing corruption, money laundering, or customs-law violations) to deter criminals.

Training programs must go beyond the classroom to ensure knowledge retention and effective crime prevention by the appropriate authorities. There should be mechanisms to embed expertise with frontline enforcement agencies and to provide on-the-job support and training.

When trafficking networks devastate iconic species in one part of the world, their attention inevitably turns to places where one finds other animals with similar physical characteristics. With the decline in tigers, increasingly sophisticated criminals now look to the jaguar for its paws, pelts, and other body parts. Far greater effort is needed to prevent this magnificent big cat and the rest of Latin America’s wildlife from suffering the fate that has for so long menaced species across Africa and Asia.

That effort gets a big boost this week in London.

— — — — — — — — — — — —
Dr. Elizabeth L. Bennett is Vice President for Species Conservation at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Read other stories in this blog series:

From Sochi to London, Let’s Win the Gold for Wildlife

At Home and in London, Nigeria Tackles the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Wildlife Trafficking Takes Center Stage in London



WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.