WITH the recent arrests of high profile Cali cartel figures, attention once again is being focused on whether Colombia and other source countries are doing enough to halt the drug trade. But the rich nations have yet to stem Latin America's second-most lucrative category of illicit exports: exotic and endangered wildlife.
Along with deforestation, trafficking is one of the main causes of species depletion in Latin America. The Worldwide Fund for Nature recently reported that Brazil loses 12 million animals per year because of illegal exports, with 90 percent of them dying before even reaching the underground markets of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Although birds are the most popular, customers in the United States, Europe, and Japan are eager to get other animals such as boa constrictors, lizards, monkeys, and crocodiles.
As with narcotics, the animal trade is almost solely fueled by demand from the developed world. Wealthy collectors use endangered species as exotic decorations, the living equivalents of rare art. Because of the animals' scarcity, profits can run up to 2,000 percent. The US price for a hyacinth macaw (which has declined in Western Brazil from a population of 100,000 in 1970 to 3,000 in 1991) is $10,000. A red macaw sells for $12,000 outside Brazil but only $120 inside. Wooly monkeys can fetch $50,000 in Japan. With prices like these, it is no surprise that animal trafficking reaps up to $10 billion annually.
The parallels to the drug trade don't end with pricing. Like the coca farmers of Peru and Bolivia, many impoverished inhabitants of the Amazon must poach to live. Local populations learn to use their knowledge of animals' habitats efficiently, and in some parts of the Amazon, animal smuggling has become the main component of local economies. As in the drug trade, many participate but only a few gain the massive profits.
How effective is enforcement of endangered species laws? Not very. The US priority is fighting the drug war, and agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service are low on Congress's list. Washington fails to realize that animal smuggling and drug importation are connected. Those who engage in the latter often ship the drugs enclosed in the skins of dead creatures or the abdomens of live ones. In Latin America, enforcement on the exportation side is almost nonexistent. Brazil's environmental agency only has 2,000 field agents for a country the size of the continental US.
Congress's Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, which prohibits the importation of wild-caught birds, has been given high grades by some wildlife conservationists. However, it is coming up for reauthorization this September and, not surprisingly, pet-industry lobbyists are working overtime to kill it. Since Washington and Brasilia are focusing largely on economic, not ecological, issues, most wildlife traffickers will continue evading the authorities.
What can be done? Preservation groups have several ideas. One is to use breeding farms, preferably domestic ones, which can be regulated more easily. Prospective pet owners could be educated to buy only animals that have not been directly taken from the wild and are acclimated to human contact. We must also shatter the myth that purchasing endangered wildlife somehow saves them from inevitable destruction of their habitats. Taking creatures from their natural environments only speeds habitat decline.
The best solution, however, is to clamp down on demand. US consumers can demonstrate that we care about the Amazon and global ecological protection by examining our preferences and refusing to buy endangered wildlife.