The illegal jaguar trade is thriving online. Why aren’t governments stopping it?

The illegal jaguar trade is thriving online. Why aren’t governments stopping it?

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Purchasing illegal jaguar parts — from teeth to skins to claws — doesn’t always involve seeking out the dark, nefarious corners of the black market. Often, they can be found with a quick Google search. Or by pursuing social media sites and online marketplaces.

A new report from the Wildlife Conservation Society analyzes just how easy it is to buy and sell trafficked jaguar parts online, revealing that most of the activity is happening in Latin America with little or no response from law enforcement.

“The buyers are on the surface of the internet, on social media,” said Kurt Duchez, a report co-author and WCS Wildlife Trafficking Officer for Central America. “It’s all sitting in plain sight. You just have to look for it.”

Duchez and other researchers reviewed online archives of popular social media sites and online marketplaces for posts related to jaguar sales between 2009 and 2019. The search was done in seven languages (Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese) across 19 countries.

They found that 230 online posts related to the buying or selling of illegal jaguar parts had been made across 31 platforms during the ten-year period. There were 579 images posted about jaguars, some containing the entire animal and others showing different body parts for sale.

Jaguars are often targeted for their skins and teeth. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)
Jaguars are often targeted for their skins and teeth. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Searches done in Spanish yielded the highest results, making up over 50% of all jaguar-related posts. Portuguese, due to the presence of jaguars in Brazil, was also a popular language. Posts in Chinese were common because China is a top destination for jaguar parts, which are used for decoration, jewelry and medicinal practices, among other things.

The report said teeth were the most traded body part, with 156 posts offering 367 total teeth. Most teeth posts were in Mexico, China, Bolivia and Brazil.

The second-most traded jaguar part was skins, with 37 appearing in online posts. Of those, researchers confirmed that 23 were definitely jaguar skins, while the others were either fraudulent or belonged to other animals.

Duchez said they were surprised by the prominent role that Mexico played in the online trafficking of jaguars. While the country does have a healthy population in some southern states, it’s much smaller than the jaguar populations of other Latin American countries.

“We didn’t expect Mexico to pop up like that,” Duchez said. “That really got our attention.”

Mexico has been called a “trampoline” for contraband, drugs and illegally traded flora and fauna. In addition to the jaguar (Panthera onca), numerous plants and animals have been the target of traffickers in Mexico, including howler monkeys, sea cucumbers and totoaba, among others.

Trafficked jaguar teeth. (Photo courtesy of Earth League International)
Trafficked jaguar teeth. (Photo courtesy of Earth League International)

International jaguar trafficking ran rampant until around 1975, when the species was included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which required countries to increase trade protections and monitoring.

After that, trafficking became less of a problem compared to habitat loss and decreasing prey populations, the report said. But there was a resurgence in trade around the early 2010s, much of it online.

Even so, most of the jaguar trafficking that takes place today doesn’t happen online. Sophisticated trafficking groups from China operate entirely offline, buying and selling in such large quantities that they must also partake in the laundering of millions of dollars, according to Andrea Crosta, the Executive Director and co-founder of Earth League International, an intelligence group that investigates the trafficking of flora and fauna.

“It’s like comparing selling pills to transnational drug traffickers,” Crosta said of the online market versus organized crime networks.

Online posts are mostly done by artisanal and small-scale sellers, especially in Mexico. Even if they’re taking place less frequently than sales organized by organized crime groups, there is still a missed opportunity for governments to crack down on illegal activity that is relatively easy to trace.

“All government officials have TikTok and a Facebook page,” Duchez said. “If they take fifteen minutes of their time to search on the Internet, they’ll find it.”

This article by Maxwell Radwin was first published by on 2 February 2023. Lead Image: A jaguar in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia. 

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