Illegal Trade – The Impact of Asian Demand on Five Species

by Mongabay Latam on 20 March 2020

Scarlet macaws, sharks, jaguars, totoaba and vaquita porpoise are just some of the species in Latin America that suffer from illegal traffic, as a consequence of the growing demand from the Asian market.

Main image: Shark fins. Photo: Oceana

Wildlife trafficking is wreaking havoc on the populations of many species around the world. In Latin America, where 40% of the world’s biodiversity is housed, this illegal activity has intensified in some species whose demand has grown in markets such as Asia.

Despite the fact that the illegal trade in species is considered to move around 10 billion dollars a year, in some Latin American countries this activity is not classified as a serious crime. In Uruguay, for example, it is considered a simple infraction; while in Panama, the maximum penalty for trafficking fauna or flora is five years.

During the first High-Level Conference of the Americas on Illegal Wildlife Trade, which was held last October in Lima, Peru, representatives from 20 countries signed an agreement containing 21 actions to prevent the continued trafficking of species in the region.

Blue-yellow macaw chicks from illegal traffic. Photo: District Institute for Animal Protection and Welfare.

The nations that signed this agreement must present the first results of their strategies to curb illegal wildlife trafficking during the group’s next meeting, to be held in Colombia in 2021.At Mongabay Latam we select five species from Latin America, whose populations are impacted by the increase in demand in the Asian market.

Scarlet macaws: chicks and eggs

The original habitat of the Central American Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) ranged from central Mexico to Costa Rica. Today its distribution has decreased considerably, especially due to poaching to supply the illegal trade of species.

An example of the impact that the population of this bird has suffered is in Honduras. One hundred years ago, it could be found in almost the entire territory of the Central American country. By 1974 it was only located in the Caribbean area and in 1980 only in the Mosquitia, a secluded area on the border with Nicaragua.

A pair of chicks rescued in Belize. Photograph: Courtesy Friends for Conservation Development

Organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have documented that if the trafficking of chicks was more common before, now the shipment of macaw eggs has been detected to facilitate their transfer to regions such as Asia. In communities of Honduras, the presence of traffickers, of Chinese nationality, seeking to buy scarlet macaw eggs has been documented.

In Honduras, the trade in parrots and macaws has been illegal since 1990. However, the organizations that work in the conservation of these birds emphasize that there is no person convicted of trafficking in these species.

Sharks: in search of their fins

The MarViva Foundation conducted a study comparing shark export data from Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia with import figures from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. What they discovered is that there are large discrepancies between the quantities of shark products that the three Latin American countries claim to export with what actually enters the Asian nations.

The illegal fishing of shark, to satisfy a high demand for their fins and cartilage, is one of the reasons that would explain the difference between export and import volumes.

Sharks are considered among the top predators in the oceans. This places them in an important place when talking about the conservation of marine ecosystems, since the balance of marine life depends largely on them.However, illegal fishing is affecting populations that are already in some conservation category, including hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna) or silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis).

The illegal trade in shark fins has also been reported in countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Mexico.

Jaguars: fangs and claws

Since 2010 there have been records of jaguar killings in the Guianas, in order to meet the Asian demand for parts such as tusks and claws. Bolivia is also one of the first countries in Latin America where mafias dedicated to sending fangs, claws and jaguar skin (Panthera onca) to countries such as China have already been identified. While in Peru 38 tusks that were destined for the Asian nation have been confiscated.

In the Chinese market, jaguar fangs and claws can be priced at up to $ 15,000, according to data collected by journalistic investigations and by scientists dedicated to the conservation of the largest feline in Latin America.

Jaguar tusks seized in Bolivia. Photo: Courtesy of the Government of Santa Cruz.

In order to know the magnitude of the traffic in jaguar parts, in 2020 a study will be carried out in countries such as Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica in which it will also seek to document the origin and destination of this illegal trade, as well as its impact on the feline population, a species that is considered Near Threatened throughout its range.

In addition, to have more tools to stop the illegal trafficking of jaguar parts, during the last meeting of COP 13 of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, held in February 2020, it was approved to include this species in the Appendices I and II of the international agreement, thereby raising the level of protection of the feline.

Totoaba and vaquita marina: two species affected

In August 2019, two Chinese citizens were arrested in the state of California with 132 totoaba swim bladders illegally transported from Mexico, whose value could reach up to 3.7 million dollars in the Asian market.

The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is an endemic fish from the Gulf of California, whose fishing has been prohibited since 1975. Even so, this species is caught illegally to market its dried swim bladder due to its supposed medicinal value.

Illegal totoaba fishing has brought another endemic species to the Gulf of California to the brink of extinction: the vaquita marina. And is that to catch the totoaba, illegal fishermen place nets in which the cetacean is trapped.

Fishermen with totoabas caught illegally. Photo: Courtesy of Elephant Action League.

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