The disturbing rise in the illegal jaguar trade

A jaguar carcass being transported from the forest in Suriname using a canoe: World Animal Protection
A jaguar carcass being transported from the forest in Suriname using a canoe: World Animal Protection

A bewildering array of products derived from jaguar parts are driving an alarming increase in the poaching and trafficking of one of Latin America’s most iconic species.

Conservationists have reported that jaguar teeth and claws are being marketed as must-have accessories to tourists taking part in traditional ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru. A separate investigation uncovered tubs of a glue-like black paste, made from boiled jaguar carcasses, being smuggled to Asia as an expensive arthritis cure. Jaguar cubs are also known to have been scooped up as pets, only to be sold off for parts when they become too big to handle.

Wildlife trafficking is rising in Latin America, the richest biodiversity hotspot on the planet and home to around 40 per cent of the world’s plant and animal species. The illegal wildlife trade is an emerging threat on a continent that has historically lacked the large-scale conservation efforts of Africa and Asia.

It highlights the urgency of our Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, which was launched by The Independent’s largest shareholder Evgeny Lebedev to call for an international effort to clamp down on the illegal trade of wild animals, one of the greatest threats to future biodiversity.

Jaguars face a myriad of threats, among them deliberate killings for their fangs, skulls, bones, skins, paws and meat.

The species teetered on the verge of extinction in the mid-20th century when some 18,000 jaguars were killed each year for their skins until, in 1975, international trade in jaguars was banned. Although hunting declined, jaguars still faced retaliatory attacks by humans protecting livestock, and by those who feared the large cats in remote areas.

An estimated 130,000 jaguars are left in the wild, where the solitary cats roam across 18 range countries. Population numbers have declined by around a quarter over the last three generations. They have been wiped out from almost 50 percent of their historic range and are extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador.

Increased poaching has been documented in the Amazon, where jaguars are largely concentrated, particularly in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and the Guianas. Killings have also been reported in Suriname, Bolivia and Peru.

The species are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction driven by the rampant deforestation and wildfires being set in the Amazon by land-grabbers for agricultural expansion, logging and mining. Following last year’s record deforestation and wildfires in the Amazon, last month was the worst June for blazes in 13 years.

Slashing and burning through the rainforest is a twin threat to jaguars: Both destroying their habitat and providing easier access to trophy hunters, criminal trafficking gangs and opportunistic poachers.

The chopping up of “forest corridors” leave jaguars particularly vulnerable. The solitary cats require expansive areas of land in which to roam, with males often traveling hundreds of miles to find a mate.

Trapping jaguars in isolated pockets of shrinking forest reduces their ability to hunt, reproduce and remain genetically diverse.

The explosion of trade routes between Latin America and Asia in the past decade, along with the establishment of Chinese-owned mining and logging operations in the region, has played a significant role in the increased demand for wildlife products.

A report last month from TRAFFIC, the NGO focused on trade in wild animals, found that much of the wildlife leaving Latin America is destined for markets in China, and possibly Southeast Asia.

A UN report this month also found that criminals can shift from protected species to alternatives that have a similar value. As tigers becoming increasingly rare in the wild and seizures of parts more common, traffickers are turning their attention to other big cats, including the jaguar, that can be passed off as tiger products.

In February 2018, two Chinese citizens were arrested in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia for possession of 185 jaguar teeth and three skins. In 2018, a criminal gang which had been operating in the Brazilian Amazon state of Acre for the past 30 years, were estimated to have killed more than a 1,000 jaguars, according to TRAFFIC.

But the illegal trade with China is far from the only issue as conservationists warn that further investigation is needed to understand the complex and interwoven threats.

Ayahuasca Tourism

A report last year established a link between illegal sales of jaguar parts and the ayahuasca and shamanic tourist trade.

Ayahuasca ceremonies, an ancient tradition where a psychoactive brew made from the ayahuasca vine and chakruna leaves are used for spiritual healing or specific physical ailments, have grown in popularity among foreign tourists flocking to Latin America.

It’s big business: In Iquitos, Peru, a hub for ayahuasca lodges, ten of the 40 largest retreats make $6.5 million annually from foreign tourism, according to a 2015 study.

Along the peripheries, small vendors market jaguar body parts from roadside stalls or curio shops to ayahuasca tourists to “enhance” their spiritual experiences.

Alex Braczkowski, a researcher at the Resilient Conservation research group, at Griffith University in Australia, co-authored the 2019 study that emerged from a trip to the shamanic hubs of Iquitos, Lima and Pucallpa, Peru in 2017 as part of a National Geographic expedition.

“We just happened to come across a ton of jaguar parts being openly sold in the streets and by roadside vendors,” he told The Independent. “They were selling jaguar bags, jaguar skin bracelets, knife sheaths and a lot of canine pendants with cross-sections of the ayahuasca vine stuck on. They were being marketed as a way to enhance the spiritual experience of ayahuasca ceremonies.”

Jaguar skins were being sold for $49-$152, while a single paw could be bought for $9. A stuffed jaguar head was priced at $30–$91 and jaguar canines cost anywhere from $61–$122.

The study noted that “local indigenous shamans and healers from the Pucallpa area… denied the notion that jaguar parts enhance the ayahuasca experience for visiting tourists, and suggested that this practice is being marketed by ‘charlatan shamans’ seeking financial gain from the ayahuasca boom”.

Vendors were also willing to transport the skins internationally, using airport and customs agent contacts, according to the study. (Wildlife traffickers face up to five years in prison under Peruvian law.)

Dr Esteban Payan, South America Jaguar Program Regional Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, told The Independent the illegal trade in jaguar parts linked to the ayahuasca tourism industry, happens not only in Peru but throughout the Amazon region including in Colombia and Ecuador.

“It has slowed down during the pandemic but it will be back with a vengeance,” he said.

“Naive backpackers believe that a jaguar canine, for example, will bring added power and a stronger high to their ayahuasca journey. But they don’t think about what it means – to get that canine, a mother jaguar may have been killed, leaving cubs and reducing population numbers.”

Glue paste for arthritis and ‘bone’ wine

Jaguar parts are used in traditional medicines that claim to treat a host of ailments from arthritis pain to boosting sexual performance.

An investigation, conducted in 2018 by World Animal Protection (WAP) in Suriname, found “a highly secretive hunting and trading chain” where jaguars could be tracked for days before being shot multiple times.

Roberto Vieto, global campaign manager of Wildlife Not Pets World Animal Protection, told The Independent: “Our investigation in Suriname exposes the extreme cruelty involved in the illegal wildlife trade of jaguar parts, which transforms the largest feline of the Americas into a glue-like paste product (with no scientific-proved benefits), their fangs into souvenirs, and in some cases, jaguar cubs into exotic pets kept in terrible conditions.”

Almost half of Suriname citizens live in poverty and the illegal trade in jaguars is a lucrative means of support.

The investigation found that carcasses were sold by local hunters to Chinese middlemen for around $260, which were then marked up to $2,000-$3,000 in larger urban areas.

Jaguar carcasses were also being chopped and boiled into a glue-like black paste to apparently treat arthritis, researchers noted. Dozens of tubs were being smuggled out of Suriname to Asia, where each one sold for $785- $3,000. Jaguar penises were also being illegally shipped as a product to enhance virility.

Jaguar teeth and claws, some set in gold, were found by investigators in markets around Suriname’s capital Paramaribo. A tooth set in gold could fetch up to $1,200.

Jaguar carcasses are also sought by Chinese and Filipino communities in Suriname for meat and the bones used to make wine, according to the study.

Mr Vieto said that more must be done to elevate the status of the jaguar as critically important to diverse ecosystems.

“Additional efforts should be placed to educate about the ecological value of the species in their natural habitat, improving the coexistence to reduce the conflict with wild animals, and discourage completely the use of wild animal parts as medicine and substitute this by sustainable herbal alternatives,” he said.

At an international level, there is a growing recognition that more must be done to protect jaguars. They are currently listed as “Nearly Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List though their status may be elevated to “vulnerable” due to recent trends.

In 2018, 14 countries where the jaguar roams, along with international conservation groups, Panthera, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the United Nations Development Programme, came together with an ambitious plan to secure a “Jaguar Corridor”, stretching from Mexico to Argentina, and involving 30 priority conservation landscapes for the big cats by 2030.

“The jaguar is an icon for Latin America and a clear reminder of our indigenous heritage, we need to strive to mobilize people to stand up and defend the home we share,” María José Villanueva, WWF Mexico Conservation Director, said of the plan.

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