Unsustainable wildlife trade in the Amazon

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Guatemala Amazon or Blue-crowned Amazon in a cage for transport. French Guiana
© WWF-Canon / Roger LeGUEN

Draining the Amazon of wildlife

The Amazon is home to different kinds of predators, such as harpy eagles and jaguars. But the most dangerous of all, of course, has two legs, a gun, and traps.
As in Asia and Africa, many species are subject to trade. While human population pressure on natural resources in South America is not perceived to be as marked as on other continents, the trafficking of wildlife remains a serious issue.

The use of wildlife by humans is nothing new. In South America, keeping and using animals has been practised for a long time by indigenous people. The Incas in Peru used to trade wild animals such as alligators and anacondas from the Amazon but this activity increased with the beginning of European exploitation in the region.1

The problem with trading wildlife

Wildlife trade is by no means always a problem and most wildlife trade is legal. However, it has the potential to be very damaging.

Perhaps the most obvious problem associated with wildlife trade is that it can cause overexploitation to the point where the survival of a species hangs in the balance.

Historically, such overexploitation has caused extinctions or severely threatened species and, as human populations have expanded, demand for wildlife has only increased. 

Find out more

The wildlife trade underworld of the Amazon

Wildlife trade can take many forms and involves a range of players. Major traffickers (usually European, North-American and Asian) collaborate with a network of dealers and suppliers in the countries where animals are sold, and in the countries where the animals are found in the wild.2

In the Brazilian Amazon, wild species are trapped in the forest by indigenous people – often encouraged by traffickers to hunt endangered species and to sell them their skins and other products3 - gold prospectors, peasants, farmers and cowboys, who complement their income through this illegal activity.4

The wildlife trade chain

Dead or alive, the wildlife passes into the hands of middlemen, including boatmen, farmers and truck and bus drivers. Higher up the trade chain are small and medium traffickers, with connections to major traffickers operating within the country and abroad.5 Some wildlife is then exported to Europe, Asia, and North America through major harbours and airports,6 while the rest is used locally.

The remote borders between Amazon countries are ideal places for traffickers to export wild animals.7 Research has shown that sometimes, traffickers will 'launder' wildlife through zoos or so called “scientific/conservation” or commercial breeding institutions - legal or not - which provide false certificates attesting the animals were born in captivity which enables them to be imported or exported.8
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Leonardo LACERDA
Jaguar (Panthera onca) killed by poachers, Jaú National Park, Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Leonardo LACERDA
The illegal trade in wild animals has been linked to other types of illegal activities such as drugs, weapons, alcohol and gems. In fact, drugs are known to have been hidden also in animal skins.

Tricks of the trade

As traffickers are trying to conceal or hide the animals it often means they are transported in ways that are detrimental to their welfare, packed in very small areas resulting in injury or suffocation.
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Ver-O-Peso market. Inside the stalls: Leaves, roots, essences, dry parts of wild animals used for cooking and medicine. Belém, Amazonas, Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Juan PRATGINESTOS

Why is wildlife trade thriving?11

  • High profits are made at the top of the trade chain.
  • As authorities crack down on drug trafficking, traders may switch to wildlife trafficking - good profits and less risk of inspection.
  • In many parts of the world, authorities still consider the illegal wildlife trade a minor crime. As a result, few resources are allocated to fight the trade and punishments are light or not enforced.
  • There is often limited capacity to implement regulations for illegal wildlife trade reduction. In the absence of political will and funds to protect wildlife, there are few incentives for sustainable use and conservation efforts.

What gets caught

  • Birds: Birds in the Amazon are prime targets for traffickers. Some are sold live, while others are killed to supply feathers, skins and other body-parts. Eggs are also traded. Some of the most traded birds include the passerines (Brazilian market), while foreign collectors favour, for example,  the blue-throated macaw and blue hyacinth macaw, prized for its brilliant blue colouring, large size, intelligence and rarity.13
  • Reptiles: These animals are highly valued for their skins. Crocodile, snakes and lizard skins are used for shoes, handbags, clothes, suitcases, belts, etc.14 Live reptiles are also popular pets. In the past ten years, the world demand for reptiles by pet shops, educational and scientific institutions, zoos, aquaria, as well as for food, has dramatically increased.
  • Mammals: Of all mammal species from the Americas that are traded, 95% are found in Brazil, one of the major suppliers of primates along with the Guianas and Peru.16
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1 Redford, K.H. 1992. The empty forest. BioScience, 42(6): p. 412-422.
2Le Duc, J.P. 1996. Trafficking in animals and plants: a lucrative form of crime. International Criminal Police. ICPO n° 458/459: p. 19-31.
3Seerger, A. 1982. Native Americans and the conservation of flora and fauna in Brazil. In: Socio-economic Effects and Constraints in Tropical Forest Management, John Wiley e Sons Ltda.; p. 177-190
4Renctas. 2001. 1st National Report on Wild Fauna Traffic. Brasília - Brazil. 108 p
5Renctas. 2001. 1st National Report on Wild Fauna Traffic. Brasília - Brazil. 108 p
6RENCTAS .1999. Animais Silvestres: normatização e controle. Rede Nacional Contra o Tráfico de Animais Silvestres, Rio de Janeiro.
7Renctas. 2001. 1st National Report on Wild Fauna Traffic. Brasília - Brazil. 108 p
8Renctas. 2001. 1st National Report on Wild Fauna Traffic. Brasília - Brazil. 108 p
9Sick, H. 1997a. Ornitologia brasileira. Nova Fronteira, Rio de Janeiro, p.912.
10Lopes, P.R.D. 1991. Comércio de animais silvestres. Bioikos 5(1): p.49-56.
11Le Duc, J.P. 1996. Trafficking in animals and plants: a lucrative form of crime. International Criminal Police. ICPO n° 458/459: p. 19-31.
12Ortiz-Von Halle, B. 2001. Perspectivas sobre el comercio ilegal de fauna en América del Sur - TRAFFIC. Presented in the 1st South-American Conference on the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, August 17-21, Brasília, Brazil.
13 WWF-UK. Undated. Threatened parrots - a global picture. www.wwf.org.uk
14Le Duc, J.P. 1996. Trafficking in animals and plants: a lucrative form of crime. International Criminal Police. ICPO n° 458/459: p. 19-31
15Renctas. 2001. 1st National Report on Wild Fauna Traffic. Brasília - Brazil. 108 p.
16Hemley, G. and Fuller K.S. 1994. International Wildlife Trade: a CITES Sourcebook. WWF/Island Press, Washington, p. 166.
17SEPLAN/CNPQ. 1982. Recursos Naturais Faunísticos. SEPLAN/CNPQ, Brasília, p. 30.
18Mack, D. & Mittermeier, R.A. 1984. The International Primate Trade: summary, update and conclusions. In: The International Primate Trade, v.1, TRAFFIC (USA), Washington, pp. 181-185.
19Fitzgerald, S. 1989. International Wildlife Trade: Whose business is it? World Wildlife Fund, Baltimore, p. 459.

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