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Peru's Eco-Police Make Barely a Dent in Trade of Exotic Pets

30,000 Animals Sold Each Year

A woman in search of a pet had barely stepped out of a cab on Ayacucho Street in downtown Lima when Lucho swooped in to see if he could help her.

After taking her on a cursory tour of the various shops' more traditional pets, he turned to her and with a raised brow and a hushed voice asked, "Or are you looking for something a little more exotic?"

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Lucho, who refused to give his full name, whisked the woman into a back room. Behind the door a cloth sack hung from a nail. From the sack Lucho produced a tightly coiled Amazon snake. In case snakes weren't her thing, he brought her to a nearby back-alley apartment that served as a clandestine depot for an exotic miniature monkey.

And if that didn't strike her fancy, he said he could bring any number of exotic and contraband birds to her home, with delivery free of charge.

Lucho and the other traffickers on Ayacucho Street are just a drop in the bucket in the contraband trade of Peru's wildlife. Every year, tens of thousands of animals - many of them endangered - are taken from the wild to be sold in Lima or shipped abroad.

Last year, the Ecological Police - a division of national law enforcement established four years ago - recovered more than 5,000 animals from places like Ayacucho Street and airport customs. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Each year traffickers take 30,000 animals from their habitats to sell on the contraband market, says Arturo Alfaro, the director of Vida, a local environmental organization.

The traffic in these animals starts in the jungle, where many of the local people are both savvy to the ways of animals and desperate for income. They trap animals live for $15 to $20 apiece and turn them over to traffickers.

To get an animal from the jungle to Lima for sale or export, they have to cross the Andes Mountains, enduring cold weather and high altitudes to which the animals are not accustomed. According to Jorge Risemberg, head of the Ecological Police's animal division, 60 to 70 percent of the animals taken from their habitat die in transport.

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"The great majority of animals taken from the jungle are destined for the international market. There is a real demand for these animals abroad, and there are people here who know how profitable this market can be. On the global level, after drug trafficking and the contraband arms trade, the contraband trade of animals is the most profitable," Mr. Risemberg says.

The popular guacamayo - a large, colorful, parrot-type bird - for instance, costs a trafficker around $15 in the jungle, but can be sold for as much as $300 in Lima, and as much as $5,000 abroad.

The more rare the animal is, the higher the price. This means that endangered animals are the most sought after, pushing them even further toward extinction.

The 18 members of the Ecological Police's animal division have a hard time making a real dent in the trade. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of resources. "They have no money to do investigative work, so they rely on getting tipped off, or they do sporadic raids of Ayacucho Street. They get the money for the gas for their trucks to go pick up animals, and that's about the extent of it," Alfaro says.

But even more troubling than the lack of resources, say environmentalists, is a 1992 law permitting people to apply for licenses with which they can maintain and breed exotic animals on their property. Each permit-holder is given a one-time right of extraction, with which they can legally take animals from the wild to use as breeding stock.

But according to both the ecological police and environmental groups, some of these licensed, so-called breeders use their businesses as a smoke screen to hide trafficking operations.

"The government has given licenses to people who have police records of illegally trafficking animals," environmentalist Alfaro says.

The Ecological Police have no quarantine facilities for recovered animals, so they often rely on the people with these licenses to care for recovered animals.

And since the Ecological Police don't have the funding to return rescued animals to their habitat after the required quarantine period ends, they leave them with the breeders indefinitely.

In one case, police raided the property of a licensed exotic animal breeder and found 2,000 illegal animals. The owner admitted to trafficking the animals, "but then the Ecological Police had the problem of what to do with these animals. There was no place to keep them, so they left them in this guy's custody, exactly where they found them. It's totally illogical," Alfaro says.

While some people say that giving licenses to breeders will prevent people from taking animals from the jungle by creating a market of second-generation animals, Alfaro says it has the opposite effect.

"Giving people licenses sounds like a nice idea on paper, but Peru doesn't have the infrastructure or resources to carefully monitor and manage these breeders," he says.

"Instead of helping to protect the animals, what it winds up doing is augmenting the traffic of these animals," Alfaro adds. "Having these breeders in Lima stimulates a demand for these kinds of animals. But more importantly, this law gives illegal traffickers a faade of legitimacy to hide behind."

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