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Fangs and skin: Illegal wildlife trade endangers Latin America’s jaguars

In Brazil, a jaguar comes down to the water. Strong swimmers, jaguars are often found near water and prefer tropical rainforest and swampland habitats In Brazil, a jaguar comes down to the water. Strong swimmers, jaguars are often found near water and prefer tropical rainforest and swampland habitats
02 Jul
Increasing reports of seized jaguar fangs and skin suggest that demand for jaguar parts has grown in the past decade, particularly in China. As relations between Latin America and Asia strengthen, criminologists and conservationists are concerned that a formal market for trafficked jaguar parts could reverse critical conservation progress

Rodrigo Medellin, chief advisor to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for Mexico, has witnessed the growth of a disturbing industry first hand. ‘I was speaking at a conference in Vancouver last year, when my students started messaging me like crazy,’ he remembers. ‘I came off stage, looked at my phone and saw an image of a jaguar we had been researching. It had the trademark signs of the illegal trade: no head, and no paws. That is when the gravity hit.’ 

Though exact population numbers are hard to estimate, the largest big cat in the Americas is now considered ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Despite being listed as an Appendix I species under CITES since 1975, which prohibits all international trade of jaguar products for commercial purposes, conservationists believe that jaguar parts, including canines, skulls, and skins are increasingly being sold for jewellery, decoration, and traditional medicine. According to a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Oxford Brookes University, the number of jaguar parts seized by authorities increased 200-fold across Latin America from 2012 to 2018, with 34 per cent of cases officially involving Chinese citizens or destinations. 

This spike in demand is reminiscent of historic and other ongoing poaching crises. ‘Increasing demand in China inspired Asian nationals in Africa to set up trafficking routes of ivory and rhino horn to Asia,’ says Pauline Verheij, a wildlife crime specialist at EcoJust. ‘Within a decade, African elephant and rhino populations were decimated by industrial-scale poaching. This is the speed at which a species can be brought to the brink of extinction once a consumer market opens.’

Latin America now represents a potential new hotspot for the opening of such a market. ‘In Latin America, you have weak enforcement, you have a lack of funding for wildlife crime, you have poverty, and you have a potential source of revenue in wildlife – that can create the perfect storm,’ says Maria Jose Villanueva, jaguar lead at WWF. The fear is that the cat will join the list of those already commonly traded across borders. According to a report from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, big cat parts accounted for 31 per cent of mammal seizures at global airports in 2018, with China being the most common destination. 

Jaguar As an apex predator, the jaguar is a symbol of a thriving trophic chain and a healthy forest ecosystem. Now, the emerging illegal trade in jaguar body parts, reminiscent of historic poaching crises, threatens to undo the critical conservation work of international organisations and indigenous communities

Rising reports

The export of jaguar products from Latin America to Asia was first highlighted in 2010 by WWF. Interviews with local people in the forests of Suriname revealed the buying and selling of jaguar parts through domestic markets. Interviewees also revealed that canines were frequently sold at high prices to Chinese intermediaries. One respondent said that the teeth were being illegally transported to China, where market values are higher: ‘If Chinese nationals need jaguar products, they place the order with known hunters,’ added the interviewee. 

In the ensuing years, more reports have emerged. To date, the Bolivian authorities have been involved in 35 verifiable cases of illegal trading of jaguar parts, amounting to 667 canines. In 2014, police raided the home of Chinese national Yan Yixing to find jaguar heads and at least seven canines, along with evidence of international jaguar trafficking on his computer. One person was arrested in China after arriving from Bolivia with 119 jaguar canines. Separately, three Chinese travellers were arrested for attempting to smuggle out 19 jaguar teeth as well as raw gold. 

Jaguar chartFrom 2012 to 2018, the number of individual jaguars (calculated based on the number of body parts) seized in Latin America increased by over 200-fold. Source: Data provided by Wiley. Copyright © 2000-2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., or related companies. All rights reserved

Throughout the jaguar’s range, cats can come into contact with cattle ranchers, who sometimes kill jaguars in retaliation for livestock predation. These retaliatory killings can in turn encourage informal local markets for jaguar parts that set the stage for more formal international trade. A 2018 field survey conducted by World Animal Protection (WAP) found that interviewees in Suriname opportunistically sold canines of killed jaguars to Chinese intermediaries. ‘Conflict between livestock managers and jaguars opens up an opportunity for collateral damage. As Chinese demand increases, more supply is becoming available through opportunistic killings,’ says WWF’s Villanueva. 

Conservationists are concerned that high prices for jaguar parts could lure locals into this trade (even publishing prices is deemed controversial in case it encourages further poaching). In 2016, flyers were discovered offering large sums of money for jaguar canines in the north of Bolivia, and in 2016, the Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos reported that a Chinese citizen in Rurrenabaque had paid for a radio announcement, offering prices equivalent to an average monthly income in Bolivia.

Unsurprisingly, difficult economic situations are likely to increase the appeal of the trade. WCS’s report demonstrates that an increase in the number of jaguar-part seizures throughout Latin America between 2012 to 2018 was correlated with a lower gross national income per capita across the region. 

Despite these reports, the jaguar remains a symbol of national identity for many Latin American countries. The Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs worshiped the jaguar as a god and it remains a cultural symbol today. This year a 1,000 peso bill, emblazoned with the jaguar will begin to circulate throughout Mexico. Retaliatory killings go against the grain of this national pride, and some experts are concerned that the emerging market might warp local perceptions of the animals. ‘We have invested considerable energy in innovative methods and techniques to reduce human-jaguar conflicts, and improve co-existence, with the goal of reducing jaguar killings,’ says WCS coordinator for jaguar conservation, John Polisar. ‘When extra money can be made from retaliatory killings in domestic markets, it almost provides an incentive to resolve potential conflicts lethally, rather than looking for co-existence solutions.’ 

Speaking about the situation in Mexico, Rodrigo Medellin of CITES, whose conference was interrupted by the gruesome texts, says: ‘Fifty per cent of people in Mexico live below the poverty line. That’s unfortunately fertile terrain for the illegal wildlife trade.’ Medellin is working with the Mexican government to establish a programme in which local ranchers can receive compensation for damage caused by jaguars. ‘This year, we celebrated reimbursement case number 600,’ he says. ‘We’re helping local people see the true treasure in their land.’ 

Clovis Fangs WebAn international market for jaguar fangs is emerging [Photo: Clovis de la Jaille]


Suriname: Fragile economics

Suriname typifies the economic troubles that many Latin American countries face. Seventy per cent of the Surinamese population lives below the poverty line and the economy has fluctuated since the civil war of 1986-1992. After a decade of growth, recent years have seen the economy decline once again. The country is home to rich deposits of bauxite (the critical component of aluminium) and has a history of dependence on the aluminium industry. The departure of aluminium company Alcoa in 2015 triggered a debilitating recession and massive inflation: annual economic growth dropped from five per cent in 2012 to minus 10.4 per cent in 2016.

With heavy dependence on mineral prices, Suriname’s economy is prone to the effects of commodity price swings. The appeal of the wildlife trade is clear. Investigators from World Animal Protection in Suriname were told by interviewees that a dead jaguar carries the cash value of 20g in gold, enough for the down payment for a new car.

SurinameThe rainforests of Suriname offer an ideal habitat for the jaguar, but the country's economic situation could imperil the big cats

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Chinese investment

Chinese investment in Central and Southern America has increased ten-fold over the last decade, totalling approximately US$200 billion in 2018, according to the American Enterprise Institutethe American Enterprise Institute. As a result, trade between Asia and Latin America is expanding by 20 per cent annually. The number of bilateral trade agreements between Asian and South American countries increased from two in 2004, to 22 in 2013.

In Bolivia, commercial loans from China have improved the country’s deficient infrastructure, with the aim of streamlining the path of natural resources to the Chinese market. Bolivia received four loans from the Chinese Export-Import bank between 2009 and 2011, totalling US$650 million. In Suriname, Chinese communities have established hundreds of companies, and now control around 90 per cent of the country’s supermarkets. Flick through the television channels and it’s easy enough to hear Mandarin broadcasts being delivered to a growing resident Chinese population.  

A joint team from WCS and Oxford Brookes has been investigating the link between this investment and poaching. Their new study demonstrates that increasing reports of jaguar-part seizures have coincided with Chinese investment in South American countries. The team gathered data from online news searches and from technical and police reports on seizures of jaguar parts across 19 Latin American countries from January 2012 to March 2018 and plotted the figures against both Chinese investment and the population of Chinese residents. ‘We found that the level of Chinese private investment into South American countries was related to the amount of jaguar-part seizures, and not the population of Chinese residents,’ says Thais Morcatty, lead author of the study. This new work lends credence to earlier reports from WAP, which showed that jaguar killings in Suriname commonly take place in proximity to Chinese-owned timber extraction and logging sites.

Map Figure Hi ResWildlife crime specialist Thais Morcatty and her team collected reports of jaguar seizures from online, technical and police reports. Across 19 Latin American countries, they found that the number of jaguar part seizures was correlated with Chinese investment. Source: Data provided by Wiley. Copyright © 2000-2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., or related companies

Like many other specialists, Morcatty is now concerned that Chinese investment and the growing trade nexus between Asia and Latin America is allowing illegal trade networks to flourish. ‘Once a legal supply chain is built, it can facilitate the trade in illegal wildlife products,’ she says. ‘We know from other examples of illegal products that traders deal in large sums of money, and substantial legal transactions are used as cover to avoid detection when moving illegal money between countries.’

Once again, this correlation mimics that seen in other regions. ‘In Latin America, we’re beginning to see aspects of a pattern that emerged in Africa a few decades ago, where Asian investment for infrastructural projects preceded poaching of high-demand species,’ says Jeremy Radachowsky, director for Mesoamerica and Caribbean at WCS.

Keeping watch

Researchers at WCS are monitoring social media to better understand the jaguar-part supply chain. Most recently, the team, led by John Polisar, combed 34 social media platforms, including Facebook, WeChat, online marketplaces such as Mercado Libre, and those run by Chinese technology firm, Baidu. Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and China had the most posts pertaining to the sale of jaguar parts. ‘Through online searches, we found widespread evidence of domestic commerce in several countries, unimpeded by law enforcement, along with a narrower band of evidence of international transport of jaguar parts. All trade, whether international or not, starts locally and nationally. It’s important to emphasize the importance of efforts made by each country to control trade,’ says Polisar. 

‘The domestic trade is going on in a pretty open way; there hasn’t been deep enforcement in the region, and there’s clearly a sense of impunity that you can see from our online searches,’ adds Radachowsky.

Polisar and Radachowsky are hopeful that online surveillance will guide and strengthen enforcement. ‘The point of all investigations into this subject, including online searches is to stop the trade,’ says Polisar. ‘We developed methods for monitoring online markets to enhance our understanding. That information should be complemented by additional sources close to the ground. In all, the goal is actionable information to disrupt the trade.’ 

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Intelligence on the scale and methods of the trade has been hindered however by a lack of reporting across Latin American countries. ‘If you’re not looking for it, you’re not going to find it,’ says Debbie Banks, an expert in wildlife trafficking at the Environmental Investigation Agency. ‘If government agencies are not putting the effort in, then seizures and arrests won’t be happening, and they won’t be reporting it to the international community. It becomes easy then for consumer countries to say it’s not their problem.’

‘One of the greatest challenges is the lack of information,’ agrees WWF’s Villanueva.‘There are very few baselines in place to measure the trade. Having a standard methodology would be a very good first step.’ 

More positively, wildlife trafficking is beginning to leapfrog up the political agenda in Latin America. October 2019 saw the first high-level Conference of the Americas on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, held in Lima. The goals were to recognise the illegal wildlife trade and its links to organised crime as a serious threat to biodiversity, environmental and human security in the region. Special attention is now being paid to the emerging jaguar trade. In August 2019, the eighteenth meeting of CITES parties took place in Geneva. The attendants directed the secretariat to undertake a comprehensive study in order to map the pathways used in the illegal jaguar trade; to analyse the modus operandi and mechanisms of the supply chain; and to characterise the impact of illegal trade on jaguar populations.


Killed fur fashion

Though the focus today may be on Asian imports of jaguar products – in particular their fangs – not long ago it was Western buyers who drove demand, with jaguar skins often used for luxury clothing. As the fashion for jaguar fur peaked in the 1960s, more than 15,000 jaguars were killed every year. In 1968, more than 13,000 jaguar hides were imported into the United States alone. 

Archives suggest that the initial spark for this trade was the collapse of international rubber prices in 1912. Local enterprises were forced to seek alternative sources of income, setting the stage for mass hunting of Amazonian species. With supply chains established, a boom in the fur trade occurred, coinciding with the growth of economies following the Second World War. The result was a steep decline in jaguar numbers throughout their range.

With regulations on the number of legal exports enforced, the trade began to slow. In Brazil, The Fauna Protection Act – a national level regulation – came into effect in 1967. A reduced count of 7,000 jaguar hides was imported into the US in 1969. Finally, in 1975, CITES came into force, prohibiting commercial trade of jaguar hides across international boundaries, shutting down the legal fur trade for good.


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Home losses

It is widely acknowledged that one of the biggest threats to jaguars is habitat destruction. The jaguar has lost more than 50 per cent of its historic habitat in Central America. In Brazil, 40 per cent of habitat has been lost to logging and agricultural incursions, half of which has occurred in the last 40 years. This loss is a threat in and of itself, but it is also thought to exacerbate the illegal trade of jaguar parts. ‘Deforestation and the building of infrastructure are accelerating access to remote forest areas for the illegal trade to occur,’ says Villanueva.

Although empirical data linking habitat destruction and the illegal jaguar trade is yet to be released, investment in infrastructure for resource extraction has historically driven communities to participate in wildlife trade. When the oil company Maxus Energy built a road through the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, it was widely reported that members of the previously nomadic Waorani tribe settled along the road and began hunting animals for sale. In the frenzy, steep declines occurred in the numbers of white-lipped peccary, paca, collared peccary and woolly monkeys, and eventually jaguars.

To thwart this threat, Panthera, WCS, WWF, and the United Nations Development Programme have joined forces under the Jaguar 2030 initiative, which aims for unified, elevated, cooperative conservation efforts across 18 jaguar-range states. The protection of habitat is an essential partner to intelligence-led investigations into the structure of the illegal trade. ‘The first line of defence is habitat conservation. If we prevent deforestation, and corporate penetration into forest areas, it will have a trickling down effect to protect jaguars from the trade,’ says Medellin. 

Protecting this feline ambassador for the Americas is also a wider environmental act. ‘We must work together to protect the jaguar, not just because it’s iconic, but because its habitat provides such a vast array of ecosystem services – protecting jaguar habitats can enable our sustainable development goals to be reached, helping Latin American countries to fulfil their agreements under the Paris Climate Change Agreement,’ says Villanueva. 

Amazon deforestation webDeforestation is thought to accelerate the trade by placing humans into closer contact with jaguars. Conservationists agree that preserving jaguar habitats will have a trickle down effect, shielding them from the illegal trade


Indigenous people and the jaguar

A wildlife symbol of Latin America, jaguars are culturally revered by hundreds of indigenous groups. Though jaguar range has diminished and is now estimated to be just over 50 per cent of its historical distribution, population growth studies measured across ten jaguar conservation units indicate substantial increases over the last 15 years

Indigenous peoples have made a vast contribution to this work. In Bolivia, landscape conservation efforts around Madidi National Park have encouraged coordinated conservation planning and implementation between managers of protected areas and the Lecos, Tacana, and T’simane-Mosetene indigenous people. The Tacana community work to preserve wildlife corridors within their land on the southeast border of the Madidi protected area (to date the group has formal title to 389,303 hectares of land). From 2001 to 2014, recoveries in the populations of tapir, jaguars and white-lipped peccary occurred between the Tuichi and Hondo valleys, which are under the protection of the Madidi and the Tacana indigenous communities. 

Some conservation actors are working to forge lasting alliances with indigenous communities. With jaguar population strongholds located in and around protected areas and indigenous land, these communities are critical protectors and protesters. In late 2019, the Tacana and Tsimane-Mosetene indigenous communities made public declarations against the illegal trade in wildlife, including jaguars, and are now working with park guards to build a local network to detect and report on illegal activities. 

Bolivians Resized 2 webIn Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, an Indigenous family stand outside their home. Indigenous communities have made vast contributions to conservation in Latin America, and will be central to the continuity of the jaguar


A future choice

The jaguar lies at the epicentre of a perfect storm: rising demand, poverty-stricken populations, deforestation and weak enforcement all act to ensnare the species. Historic precedents serve stark warnings. Rapid escalation in Asian demand, slack intervention on trafficking, and inconsistent legislation saw the decimation of African rhino and elephant populations, with conservation action only recently taking effect to combat widespread poaching. As the ruinous pattern looms once again, Latin America’s response in the years to come will define its stance on wildlife trafficking and the environmental sector at large. 

Large scale projects, such as the Jaguar 2030 initiative, offer a solution through cooperative, range-wide efforts to achieve sustainable development, preserve jaguar conservation strongholds, and control illegal killing. Awareness and action, at both international and domestic levels, are needed to address the urgent threat of this illegal trade. 

As Roberto Vieto, wildlife manager at World Animal Protection, simply puts: ‘We cannot diminish the largest carnivore of the Americas to mere fangs and skin.’ 

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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