A report by María Lourdes Zimmermann for Mongabay.
A simple ink pen can conceal two or three freshwater fish larvae. Traffickers switch out the ink cartridge for water, transforming them into tiny tanks used to smuggle even tinier fish out of Colombia and through international airports. Their destination is Asia, where they will be introduced into attractive aquariums as symbols of abundance, wealth and prosperity.
This is just one of the many ways Colombia’s National Police have caught wildlife traffickers transporting animals captured in the rivers of the Amazon and Orinoco regions to international destinations.
“Trafficking modalities vary. They range from shipping animals as cargo or by human couriers, to the use of polystyrene boxes that serve as microhabitats for trafficked species. They also use photographic film canisters to transport small poisonous frogs and plastic bottles to smuggle exotic birds like macaws from one place to another without being noticed in police checks,” said Luz Amparo Pinto Rivera, head of the new Investigative Group of Crimes Against the Environment and Natural Resources (known in Spanish as GIDAR) of The Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (known in Spanish as DIJIN).
Illegal wildlife traffickers often use cruel methods that lead to the deaths of thousands of animals. Out of 10 animals trafficked only one reaches its destination, Pinto . “The problem the country currently faces is the absence of a monitoring system that identifies wildlife; airports do not have the necessary technology to identify wild animals and they do not check the insides of commercial packaging, so it’s easy for wildlife to travel without anyone suspecting.”
Human couriers have been identified by the DIJIN as one of the tools commonly used to transport small birds across borders. They have been widely used by the trafficking group that calls itself “The Birders.” This criminal network of eight people captured birds from the departments of Tolima and Cundinamarca, in west-central Colombia. They were dismantled in July.
“Traffickers taped small animals such as birds, around their bodies and sedated them to go unnoticed. That’s how they crossed to other countries,” explained Pinto.
Birds, frogs, snakes and mammals such as ocelots and sloths are taken from their natural habitats and delivered to traffickers to be sold within and outside the country. Farmers, fishermen and indigenous communities capture the animals and transfer them to caretakers. These caretakers are responsible for keeping the animals alive for a few days before passing them on to distributors, who will have received orders for the animals by phone. This, according to authorities, is how these networks operate.
Animals aren’t just trafficked to be sold as pets. Data from DIJIN and the National Environmental Police indicate that five departments of the Colombian Caribbean are hotspots for the development of this illegal activity, in which wildlife is captured to be sold live or for meat, skin or other body parts. So far in 2016, Magdalena, Sucre, Bolívar, Cesar and Córdoba are the departments with the most illegal hunting in the country with 11,197 captured wild animals.
The most trafficked species are Colombian slider turtles (Trachemys callirostris), iguanas (Iguana iguana), American caiman (Caiman crocodilus fucusc), canaries (Serinus canaria) and the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria), among other animals taken from wetlands and dry forests of the region. The wildlife trafficking in these five departments is equivalent to half of the total number of animals sold illegally in the country, which to date total 20,415 specimens of fauna.
Iguanas and turtles under threat
Over the past two years, more than 48,776 police operations have exposed heart-rending cases of trafficking in the Caribbean region and elsewhere in the country. These operations are carried out by the Inter-Institutional Environmental Control Committee — a joint task force created by the National Police, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and regional environmental authorities.
On March 1, 2016, the eve of Easter in Colombia, hundreds of Colombian sliders were confiscated by the National Environmental Police of Córdoba, a department with a large network of wetlands that ranks fifth for wildlife trafficking in the country.
Superintendent William Guzmán, in charge of the National Environmental Police, intercepted two major traffickers of Colombian sliders who had in their possession 192 of these animals. The detainees were then handed over to the Prosecutor for judicial proceedings. The turtles were given to the environmental authority of the department and then reintroduced to their habitat, Guzmán explained to Mongabay-Latam.
Colombian sliders face overexploitation due to the hunting of eggs and adult females for sale, meat consumption and the trading of juveniles as pets. Traffickers’ primary targets are adult females, particularly during breeding season, which magnifies the effect the trade has on the species’ population.
To capture them, the hunters camouflage themselves by standing in bogs wearing masks made of leaves. They hunt during two seasons: December to May and July to August, precisely when females lay eggs and are more vulnerable and easier prey. Hunters attack them with sharp weapons and even burn nesting areas causing fires.
The overexploitation of this turtle is mainly linked to its consumption, part of a deep-rooted cultural tradition in the species’ area of distribution. This situation is most critical during Easter and throughout Lent, because the Colombian sliders’ white meat is consumed as part of a religious custom, as is the flesh of iguanas and other wildlife.
Sucre is the department with the second highest level of trafficking in the country. The Red Book of Reptiles of Colombia — which lists the country’s endangered reptile species — states that “it is estimated that more than one million Colombian sliders are hunted annually just in the region of La Mojana in Sucre.”
However, turtles are not the only victims. In February of this year, police arrested a group of traffickers who intended to sell 50,000 iguana eggs, considered a delicacy in the north of the country. This illegal cargo was destined for the touristic city of Cartagena. The eggs, according to police, were hidden among a pile of bananas being transported in a public service vehicle. The authorities estimate that more than 1,000 iguanas were killed to get that many eggs.
According to Víctor Hugo Gómez Arias, commander of the Bolivar police department, in the first months of the year, they captured 59 people and seized more than 80,000 iguana eggs.
Official figures from the National Police confirm that so far in 2016 they have captured 5,060 traffickers who are now in the hands of the prosecutor. In addition, they have seized 6,878 Colombian sliders, 1,505 iguanas, 1,144 red-footed tortoises and 2,837 alligators or caimans.
Some of the most trafficked reptiles of the country, like the red-footed tortoise and the Colombian sliders, are categorized as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN emphasizes the decline these species’ populations as a result of their high demand as pets and the consumption of their meat and eggs. By contrast, populations of caiman and iguanas are considered to be stable.
A dealer to fear
Isaac Miguel Bedoya Guevara is a farmer from Córdoba, one of the departments with the largest wildlife trafficking network in Colombia. He was considered the Americas’ largest trafficker of sloths with more than 30 years trading these animals along a route that led to the city of Medellín.
The authorities believe he sold animals to tourists and that his network extended beyond Colombia’s borders, reaching Panama, Costa Rica and the United States. For more than three decades, he traded animals without visible consequences and, according to his file, the prosecution estimates he took more than 10,000 sloths from their natural habitat.
Bedoya was from Colomboy, a township considered a hub of wildlife trafficking in the department of Córdoba, according to Mayor William Guzmán, head of the National Environmental Police.
“Colomboy was brought under control, but there are still areas in which it is difficult to intervene to eradicate trafficking,” Guzmán told Mongabay-Latam. “Places like Altos de Polanía, where people dedicate their lives to trading species that apparently come from the Nudo del Paramillo. They refuse to stop this activity, and if they do so, they ask to be compensated.”
Today, the Americas’ largest trafficker of sloths faces a 64-month (over five years) sentence of house arrest for illegal use of renewable resources.
“The Birders” wildlife trafficking group
Like Isaac Miguel Bedoya Guevara, the eight members of “The Birders” have managed to avoid time behind bars.
It took the police eight raids in several towns in the departments of Tolima and Cundinamarca to dismantle a chain of suppliers, vendors and bird caretakers. So far in 2016, this wildlife trafficking operation was the most significant for the new Investigative Group on environmental crime, DIJIN.
For a year and a half, a group of researchers followed this network of wildlife traffickers operating in Peru and Ecuador, which border Colombia. The network even transported animals to Mexico, selling an average of 500 of them per month, according to Luz Amparo Pinto Rivera, head of the new investigative group DIJIN.
This research uncovered the price structure of the wildlife trade and the functioning of the entire trafficking circuit. The circuit was formed by hunters and providers, who, by request, captured animals from their habitats and delivered them to sellers for small amounts of money; sellers then earned 200 times more money than the extractors. These people used their homes as small animal collection centers.
At the end of the operation, 80 animals of various species were admitted to wildlife rehabilitation centers before being reintroduced to their natural habitats.
For 100,000 Colombian pesos ($40) a hunter captures a pink flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber), which is then transported to the country’s interior — sedated, tied up and hidden in flower boxes — and then the seller, the last link in the chain, sells it for 2 million Colombian pesos ($600). Ocelots, sloths, capybaras, macaws, parrots and many other species are trafficked in a similar way.
The DIJIN estimates that networks like this can earn between 80 and 140 million Colombian pesos ($25,460 and $44,555) a year, and it is clear that the people capturing the wild animals are the lowest paid links in the chain.
“The Birders” were sentenced to less than four years, a term that allows judges to opt for a non-custodial sentence. Today, the eight offenders are released by order of a judge.
In Colombia, the trade, mobilization and illegal possession of wildlife are penalized by Law 1333 of 2009; the punishment can range from a fine equal to 5,000 monthly minimum wages to a prison sentence of 48 up to 108 months. However, most offenders are released because, under Colombian law, their sentences are too short to require they be served in prison.
DNA analysis and the traffic in animal parts
Criminal organizations in Colombia are also involved in the traffic in animal parts, which sees pieces of captured animals sold on the black market as fur, feathers, fangs, claws, beaks, fat, meat and eggs. Many of these elements are then used as hunting trophies, ornaments or to extract aphrodisiac and medicinal substances.
For these cases, the authorities need to analyze the trafficked body parts to determine which species they belong to. To this end, the Wildlife Forensic Genetics Identification Laboratory in Latin America was created under the administration of the National Police.
The laboratory is still refining its techniques and validating its ability to identify species and individual animals to build probative evidence, but it has already shown its potential in a case involving fish bladders destined for the Chinese market.
Paul Blorr, an evolutionary biologist who is part of the laboratory team, explained to Mongabay-Latam how they managed to crack this case. “Due to the characteristics of the material, we didn’t know whether it was biological or just plastic, it did not have any morphological feature to identify what it was, so in these type of cases genetic testing has its advantages,” he said. At first, the Secretary of Environment thought the material was the skin of a bat, but after laboratory analysis, they determined that it was the dried bladder of a fish from the Colombian coast, which was destined for China.
These bladders, considered an aphrodisiac dish, are sold on the illegal markets of China and Hong Kong at prices ranging between $60,000 and $600,000 per unit, according to the international environmental organization Greenpeace. “At a convention, they showed how the Chinese used these bladders in soups. One kilo could cost more than a kilo of cocaine; that is why they are known as the cocaine of the sea,” Blorr said.
Due to a lack of information on the subject, this first case did not constitute a crime. It was the first trial for the Colombian laboratory.
The Humboldt Institute has already blazed the trail for genetic research on species trafficked in the country; building on this research, the Institute’s Genetics Conservation Laboratory works to identify victims of illegal wildlife trafficking in Colombia. From 281 tissue samples from across the country, researchers from Humboldt generated DNA sequences of 152 varieties of birds in Colombia. Priority was given to endemic species, birds listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and those at risk due to trafficking. These species include parrots, hummingbirds and game birds, 47 of which had not previously been catalogued.
It was the first time researchers obtained DNA barcode records for 38 hummingbirds, four parrots, three falcons and two species of owls, mainly endemic to the northern Andes, which corresponds to 46 percent of the species of birds recorded in the Colombian CITES list, according to information published in the recent issue of the Molecular Ecology Resources Journal.
From now on, all species of birds that have been genetically cataloged can be identified by extracting drops of blood, feathers, eggs or samples of muscle and bones. This information is a valuable tool not only for environmental and judicial authorities but also for the academic community.
Colombia’s delayed law
Most of the people arrested for the crime of wildlife trafficking are set free, according to the DIJIN. “In Colombia, there is no legal or economic incentive to deter traffickers, and that is part of a weak or almost non-existent public policy,” Laura Santacoloma, lawyer and environmental law expert, told Mongabay-Latam.
“The penalties are very low because for under the law this crime does not justify someone’s loss of liberty, or at least not for a long time; in other words, it seems that, for society, the cost of wildlife traffic is not as high,” Santacoloma said. She stressed that the country should create a series of incentives to promote conservation and support initiatives for sustainable use, as part of a strategy to regulate, and eventually, eradicate wildlife trafficking.