A new shipment of illegally trafficked parrots arrives at the Los Pozos market in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. The sellers and middlemen are approached and questioned. The species, age and place of capture are noted down. This isn’t an enforcement sting, far from it; it’s research.
The year was 2004, and scientists were trying to better understand local wildlife trafficking markets. To do so they needed to get closer to the dealers themselves. But that was no easy task when the data you are gathering could also be used as evidence of a crime. So to achieve their goal, the researchers hired a go-between, a trusted insider, to ask the survey questions.
“Technically he’s part of the illicit trade, [and] he’s also a criminal,” Professor Stephen Pires, a criminologist at Florida International University told mongabay.com in a recent interview. The man they chose to conduct the survey had over ten years of experience working in the illegal parrot trafficking business.
“There’s no reason why another criminal, like a trafficker or a poacher, would not trust him with this information,” said Pires.
What the scientists learned about the clandestine domestic wildlife trade was surprising — and provides a few important pieces to a Latin American wildlife trafficking puzzle that is far from complete. The results that the scientists found, though localized, often run contrary to the established thinking surrounding trafficking.
Inside Los Pozos
As wildlife markets go, Los Pozos is not huge, not like the big urban markets in Lima, Peru, and elsewhere around South America that serve big cities and the international trade. In among all the trading stalls where clothing and food are traded, the Los Pozos market has just seven pet trading stalls. But what the researchers found was that those few stalls saw a large flow of trafficked wildlife, which is helping drain the region’s forests of wildlife.
Between August 2004 and July 2005, for example, over 7,000 parrots were sold — though most weren’t rare species. In a study, recently published in Bird Conservation International, Pires found that, out of a total of 27 species up for sale, just 6 species made up 90 percent of all the parrots trafficked, with none considered threatened by the IUCN Red List.
Four globally threatened or near threatened species were sold in the market during other surveys: the Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys) endemic to Bolivia and considered Endangered; the Blue-fronted Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) Critically Endangered and estimated to have a population of only 250-300 in the wild; the Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) which is Endangered and native only to Brazil; and the Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) listed as Vulnerable.
The researchers estimated that parrots at Los Pozos make up about 20 percent of all those passing through the four pet markets that sell animals in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. They suggest that around 22,000 parrots could be sold per year in the city alone.
Driving the demand for parrots is a deeply engrained “parrot culture” that is common across much of Latin America. Pires says the birds are the pet equivalent of cats and dogs in North America. In Costa Rica, for example, studies have shown nearly a quarter of households own one or more parrots.
In Bolivia, the owning of wild birds is seen as the norm, and the idea of selling them being illegal is illogical to most people. In fact, most of the public is likely unaware that the international trade in endangered birds has been outlawed by the international CITES treaty — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — to which Bolivia is a party.
Organized crime or crime that is merely organized?
The global trade in parrots is huge, with nearly one third of the world’s 330 parrot species considered endangered as of 2003 due to poaching and habitat loss. But the number of birds trafficked internationally is dwarfed by the number poached for domestic markets.
“Conservation studies in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru all show that the majority of parrots being poached within a country are from that country,” Pires said. The same is true of Brazil. “[W]e find very few parrots are crossing national borders.” There is, however, illegal trade between Latin American countries. For example, Bolivia is known as a “bridge” between the markets of Peru and Brazil. In the study of the Los Pozos market, only three species sold could not be found anywhere in Bolivia. All three came from Brazil.
A study conducted in Peru in 2011 found that the situation was similar. “Out of 34 species [found] in [eight] city markets [in Peru], one bird was not from Peru and it was the Monk Parakeet which is from Bolivia,” Pires said. The Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) is listed as of Least Concern due to its extensive range by the IUCN.
“So is there evidence that there is some [international] trafficking? I think there’s some. But it’s a small percentage [of the birds} we’re finding in markets,” he asserted.
It is often reported that wildlife trafficking is organized, involving vast and sophisticated criminal networks. In 2012, a major undercover sting operation by INTERPOL, dubbed Operation Cage, supported that contention. It seized 8,700 birds and other animals in 32 countries across Latin America and Europe; 4,000 people were arrested. It seemed clear that, on the international level at least, parrot trafficking was in part being driven by organized crime.
However, in Bolivia this appears simply not to be the case, according to Pires’ research. He draws an important distinction between organized crime and crime that is organized, a distinction often overlooked by researchers and journalists alike in his opinion.
“What we’re finding is that, more often than not, it’s just common citizens, peasants, who are poaching and trafficking at the local level,” he said, adding that the parrot trade in Bolivia is not complicated, but rather a very simple chain. It’s a case of a poacher knowing someone, a middleman, who will come around the village once in awhile, perhaps every couple of months, at a certain time of year, and bring along some cash for birds.
Once in the hands of the middleman, the parrots are transported to market, often via more intermediaries. “It’s not very sophisticated at all,” nor is it driven by organized crime groups, according to Pires.
“Now we can’t say that for all of South America. But for the domestic trade [in Bolivia, an organized crime role] doesn’t seem to be apparent,” he asserts.
From farm pest to beloved pet
In Bolivia, the trade in tropical birds often begins with a simple problem: human-parrot conflict. Sorghum farmers, in particular, face an ongoing menace from the air, swarms of “totaquis” — pigeons and parrots that descend on crops to feast, leaving financial ruin behind. Parrot species in the Santa Cruz area are labeled as “crop pests”; the problem is not new, the solution is however.
“Back in the day, at least up until the 1970s, [farmers] used to shoot them,” explained Pires. Hunting and trapping of the totaquis has been allowed [in the past], but parrot trapping is illegal in Bolivia. “Now rather than shoot them, [farmers] get someone to catch them and they sell them at the local market.”
The most predominant crop pest species are also those found most frequently in Santa Cruz markets, where they are sold to satisfy the extensive domestic demand for exotic pets.
“It’s a serious problem.” Pires said, but not one involving organized crime. The poachers are “everyday common citizens,” not seasoned criminals. The trade, he says, has become the norm, and thus has been “naturalized” — nobody really takes much notice of trafficking laws being broken.
By Bolivian law, anyone caught poaching or trapping parrots faces a two year prison sentence and a fine worth the equivalent of the poached bird. But the law is rarely applied. Instead, Pires said, there appears to be the widespread attitude that because so many people are doing it, and there are so many parrots still left in the wild that it’s “not that big of a deal”.
Barely a block away from the Los Pozos market is a police station. “That kind of tells you all you need to know about the problem,” Pires said. “It’s just not a priority for [law enforcement].”
Using the information given by the market informer, Pires and his colleagues feel they have gained an important insight into Bolivian wildlife trafficking, which could prove useful in other Neotropical countries. According to their findings, curbing the domestic trade in parrots would likely benefit more from using education as a tool, rather than law enforcement. If people became aware of the stress that the domestic trade is putting on threatened species in the wild, they might be less inclined to tolerate and patronize the trade.
Pires does acknowledge that Bolivian markets differ from other Latin American Neotropical bird markets in some ways. “[W]hat I was told by parrot experts, reading their articles and talking to them, was that most of parrot poaching is a nest poaching problem,” he revealed. A 2001 study suggested that between 400,000-800-000 parrot chicks are poached per year in Neotropical countries around the world. Given the low reproductive rates of many parrot species, this can be devastating for populations, especially those already with low numbers due to habitat loss.
Pires’ found something different in Bolivia: he determined that around seventy percent of all birds sold at the Los Pozos market were adults. And poaching of adults can potentially be more harmful to species survival than nest poaching. Long-lived species of parrot, particularly larger species such as macaws, take longer to reach maturity, so if numerous adults are removed from the wild this can have dire consequences for reproduction rates and the long term maintenance of populations.
Importantly, the researchers were also able to pinpoint where the trafficked parrots of Bolivia were coming from. “The market seller asked the poacher, the middleman, ‘where d’you get it from?’” Pires said. “So we were able to map it out, and see if there were hot spots, and that’s what we found.” The team discovered that 84 percent of all the parrots traded in the market were coming from only seven municipalities in the entire Santa Cruz department. Two of these, Pailón and Charagua, accounted for 56 percent of birds alone.
Trafficking also appears to be a seasonal problem in Bolivia; nearly half the birds arrived in the market between July and September. “[W]hat we found was pretty remarkable: half the birds were poached in three months,” Pires revealed. “It seems like it’s really a summer time problem.”
Grappling with and solving the problem
If conservationists are to curb domestic wildlife trafficking in Latin America, Pires concludes, they need a deeper understanding of the inner dynamics of each nation’s culture, as well as a clear picture of the workings of particular supplies, suppliers and particular markets.
If, for example, other poaching markets sell “particular species, [captured] in particular areas, at particular times of the year,” then governments needn’t stretch limited law enforcement personnel trying to stop poaching countrywide, but can better focus and allocate resources. “You really want to focus your resources at specific times, places and on particular species,” he said.
“You have to contextualize [the] problem. You have to interview people on the ground… to really find out what the problem is,” Pires argued. “I suspect hot spots, hot times, concentration of methods and hot products are going to be generalizable to any country, but crop pests [being hunted for the pet trade] might not be… It might be a specific Santa Cruz problem.”
Pires believes that implementation of his survey techniques could better inform enforcement and education efforts in Bolivia, and in other Neotropical countries. Clearly, the replication of his study methodology could be useful in determining whether markets were locally organized, or linked into organized crime, and if the domestic market was feeding significantly into the international market.
He also understands that a more profound change may need to occur to end the domestic trade’s drain on Bolivia’s and Latin America’s wildlife. Considering the public’s lack of enthusiasm for enforcing wildlife laws, and the prevalence and acceptance of domestic trafficking, the entire region may first need to undergo a seismic shift in its culture. Education and awareness campaigns may be the key to turning common citizens from perpetrators and defenders of trafficking, into conservationists who value tropical wildlife most where it’s found — in the rainforests and other habitats of their nations.
Pires, S. F., Schneider, J., Herrera M., and Tella, J., (2015) Spatial, temporal and age sources of variation in parrot poaching in Bolivia. Bird Conservation International.
Herrera, M., and Hennesse, B. (2007). Quantifying the illegal parrot trade in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, with an emphasis on endangered species. Birdlife Conservation International.
Gastañaga, M., Macleod, R C., Hennessey, B., Ugarte-Núñez, J,. Puse, E,. Arrascue, A. (2011) A study of the parrot trade in Peru and the potential importance of internal trade for threatened species. Bird Conservation International.
This article was first published by Mongabay.com on 21 Dec 2015.