A decapitated jaguar found floating in a river by a scientist doing fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazon; a dead jaguar spotted on the highway between Boa Vista and Manaus, its carcass first observed whole by the side of the road, later seen without its head or paws; dozens of media reports documenting the seizure of jaguar teeth mailed from Bolivia and Peru to China — all evidence of a booming trade in the charismatic Latin American cat.
Using data from seizures by law enforcement reported online, a new study published in Conservation Biology has found that body parts (mostly teeth) from more than 850 jaguars were seized in Central and South American countries between 2012 and 2018, and that the number confiscated over that time period increased 200-fold.
Interestingly, the study did not find a corresponding rise in the trade of smaller Latin American wildcats, such as puma and ocelot, with an average of only seven to ten individuals seized annually over the period of the study.
“Something specific is targeting the jaguars,” said Thais Morcatty, a doctoral student in anthropology and geography at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, and the study’s lead author. “Someone is targeting them.”
The largest proportion of seizures took place in Brazil, followed by Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Suriname. Of those shipments seized where a destination country could be identified, China was the predominant endpoint in 34% of cases.
These findings give weight to earlier reports by local people in Bolivia that new networks of Chinese traders were travelling through that country, offering enticing prices for jaguar parts.
With only an estimated 170,000 jaguars (Panthera onca) left in the wild, the species is classed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Valeria Boron, South America Science and Research Coordinator at the wildcat conservation group Panthera, an NGO, who was not part of the study, told Mongabay that the findings are “extremely worrisome.”
“It is the first Latin America-wide jaguar trafficking study that proves that jaguar trafficking is on the increase, and scientifically assesses its drivers,” she said, explaining the study’s significance.
The authors found that the trade was not appreciably associated with the existing large Chinese populations in source countries. They suggest instead the trafficking in jaguar parts may be linked to a new influx of Chinese people brought into Latin America by Chinese investment in the region, which has risen 10-fold over the last decade.
What particularly concerns the authors is that the seizures indicate an age-old problem that the authorities seemed to be successfully combating is again on the upswing.
“We have not seen this kind of trade since the early 1970s when the fur trade was legal and Brazil was a big exporter of furs from jaguars and other animals,” said Carlos Durigan of the RedeFauna research network and Brazil program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the study authors.
“Since the prohibition, the trade of parts of animals decreased along the years. But in the last 10-15 years, we saw news about this kind of operation in parts of animals. Not fur, but heads, skulls, teeth, bones,” explained Durigan.
The growth in jaguar trafficking seems to be a response to factors at work in both Asia and Latin America, the authors say. Traffickers may be responding to increased demand for jaguar parts in some Asian countries, possibly due to the dwindling local supply of tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine or jewelry. “We started to relate these kinds of products [jaguar parts] to the already existing market in Asia [in] other wild cats like the tiger, well known [for use] in traditional medicines — and not just in China, but other countries in Asia,” said Durigan.
Notably, the level of trafficking in Latin America varied from country to country and correlated with social and economic conditions, as well as lawlessness. “Poverty and high levels of corruption in the source countries may motivate local people to engage in illegal activities and contribute to the growth of this trade,” the study observes.
Panthera’s Boron says the new study could equip policymakers with valuable data that may help them better target law enforcement efforts to curb the specific demand- and supply-side factors of the illegal trade with Asia.
“One thing is having descriptive and anecdotal information on jaguar trafficking in the region, and another is to have statistically proven peer-reviewed evidence,” she says. “Chinese-led investment is only a part of this complex and multi-faceted issue. The authors highlight other important drivers of jaguar trafficking, such as in-country low income per capita and high levels of corruption, which should be addressed urgently.”
The authors are at pains to stress that they don’t believe the Chinese government is complicit in the illicit trade; rather, they say, it is likely that the traffickers are piggybacking on established legal economic development networks that have expanded in Latin America as Chinese investments in roads, dams and mines have multiplied.
“The idea is not to show that Chinese investment is not welcome here [in Latin America]. The idea is to show there is a relationship that we are trying to understand,” said Durigan. “Big ships come to bring supplies for the industry, they go back to Asia and we don’t know what they are taking with them. We have seen big [seizures] of wood, precious wood, inside containers.…. They may do this with other illegal products, like cocaine… and we have seen a strong relationship between wildlife traffic and other illegal trade.”
The authors acknowledge that they are constrained by the limitations on available data, with the study relying on border-seizure reports published online. And certainly the amount of jaguar parts seized is exceeded by the amount that goes undetected. But the researchers say the data they were able to access make clear the urgency of a need to address the emerging threat to jaguars in the ballooning trade in their parts.
“We don’t have much time, so I had to rely on seizure data, report data, anything countries had that could give us the first tip of what was going on,” said Morcatty. “This is not a conclusive study. This is just the first, we will be going on. Within each country a lot of things could be happening. But it’s a start, and it calls attention to this problem. We have to go deeper from now.”
To that end, conservationists are establishing alliances between national- and state-level agencies, NGOs, universities, research institutes and local communities across the Amazon region to improve monitoring, data collection, intelligence-sharing and policing of the wildlife trade.
Analysts agree that it is unlikely that Brazil, the biggest exporter of jaguar parts during the study period, will get behind efforts to defend wildlife populations due to the government of Jair Bolsonaro — which has deeply defunded and deregulated environmental enforcement, unleashed a wave of deforestation, and liberalized gun ownership rules.
But Durigan says that many state environmental officials are receptive to such efforts. Morcatty adds that local populations have been mobilized for major conservation initiatives in the past, and could be again in the future, citing successful efforts to defend the Giant South American River Turtle.
One promising multination initiative, Scaling Up Enforcement Capacity and Cooperation to Combat Wildlife and Timber Trafficking in the Andes-Amazon, brings together Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil. Led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), it began operating in January of last year and is funded by the European Union.
The WCS is also investigating the online trade in jaguar parts and is expected to report its findings next year, which should help shine a light on why jaguars are in demand.
International conservation organizations and states where jaguars range joined forces in 2018 to adopt the Jaguar Roadmap 2030, an effort to strengthen jaguar corridors that run from Mexico to Argentina by securing 30 priority jaguar conservation landscapes by 2030. Habitat loss and fragmentation is a serious threat to jaguars, which roam between 60-80 kilometers (40-50 miles) per day.
Jaguars, says Morcatty, are of value not only for their intrinsic beauty and grace, but for their position as apex predators.
“The control of many other populations of animals and plants comes from the top of the food chain. If the jaguar is there, it controls a species which consumes seeds of an important tree of the forest. If it isn’t, that population will increase and they could put that species almost to extinction, because they all have their own role.”
Thais Q. Morcatty, Jonathan C. Bausch Macedo, K. Anne‐Isola Nekaris, Qingyong Ni, Carlos C. Durigan, Magdalena S. Svensson, Vincent Nijman, (2020), Illegal trade in wild cats and its link to Chinese-led development in Central and South America, Conservation Biology, Vol 00, 0, 1-11:
This article by Rebecca Branford was first published on Mongabay.com on 11 August 2020. Lead Image: A jaguar (Panthera onca) along the Piquiri River, in Brazil’s Pantanal. Image by Sharp Photography, sharpphotography image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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