Smugglers wild about Guatemala Animals: As countries crack down on illegal trade in exotic species, advocates say this Central American nation is used increasingly as a transit point.

Sun Journal

June 02, 1998|By Michael Riley | Michael Riley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FLORES, Guatemala -- "You can buy a scarlet macaw in a market in Guatemala City for $100," Miriam Monterroso says. "If you can get it to Minnesota, you can sell it for $7,000."

That's the basic motivation for commerce in exotic species, says Monterroso, director of the Association for the Rescue and Conservation of Wildlife, a Guatemala nonprofit organization. She says some species are being pushed to the point of disappearance from native habitats in the country's dense jungles and along its coastline.

The animal industry is lucrative enough -- and the legal enforcement weak enough -- that Guatemala is becoming an international transit point, where illegally traded species from Central and South America are "packaged" for shipment to the United States, Europe and Japan.

"Smugglers don't feel afraid," says Monterroso. Only nine customs agents, she says, are assigned to the Peten, the vast jungle-dense region of northern Guatemala.

Mygdalia Garcia, an investigator and biologist for the National Council of Protected Areas, the government body responsible for enforcing the country's wildlife laws, agrees. "There are no controls in the markets," she says, "there are no controls in the airports, there are no controls in the ports. In reality, [the traffickers] can do whatever they want."

Types and targets of the trade vary. At the top of the smugglers' pyramid are a group of rare, endangered species that are traded in low volumes at high prices: jaguars, ocelots, scarlet macaws, even a rare, 5-pound reptile called the "beaded lizard," a hot item for esoteric collectors.

More common are animals that are exotic but not endangered. From monkeys and parrots to iguanas and tarantulas, the trade -- sometimes legal, many times not -- is high-volume, often low-tech and driven by the changing fads for weird pets.

"Everyone has seen 'Jurassic Park' and now everyone wants a dinosaur," Garcia says. "The only thing that really seems like a dinosaur is an iguana, and now everybody wants one."

The value of the animals determines the level of sophistication with which they're smuggled.

Government checkpoints on highways routinely find parrots stowed in gas cans or monkeys buried in baskets under fruit or vegetables. But for the rarest animals -- jaguars or scarlet macaws -- the sophistication easily overruns the limited efforts to enforce national and international laws that protect those species.

"They take the animals down the river in good boats, boats with motors of 75 or 100 horsepower," says Juan Louis Espana, chief of enforcement in the Peten, "It's difficult to catch them with the 25-horsepower motors that we have."

Officials have found parrots drugged and placed inside spare tires or hidden in the engine compartments of buses. According to one estimate, perhaps fewer than half make it to their destinations alive.

It is no coincidence that drug smugglers and animal traffickers use similar tactics. Some people deal in both, says Neil Trent, Latin American regional director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. "The dollar in the pocket is certainly worth the risk. And if you get caught on a wildlife-smuggling issue, you get maybe a rap on the knuckles and you're back on the street."

The results can be devastating for species already threatened by habitat destruction. Jaguars have nearly disappeared from the Peten. Only about 200 pairs of scarlet macaws survive in the country's northern rain forest. The rescue association's Monterroso reckons that "there are probably more scarlet macaws in the hotels of Antigua," a popular tourist city an hour southwest of the capital, than in the jungles of Peten.

On the black-sand beaches of Guatemala's Pacific coast, researchers for the California-based Earth Island Institute estimate that 95 percent of the eggs laid by endangered sea turtles are sacked by scavengers who comb the beaches during the breeding season. The eggs are sold on a thriving Central American market as a male aphrodisiac.

Trade in endangered species is prohibited by an international convention signed by nearly every country in the hemisphere, including Guatemala. But local enforcement varies. After public scandals, El Salvador and Nicaragua passed tougher legislation, created special units of wildlife police, and began training their armies to help with enforcement.

But Guatemala lags behind. It is illegal to hold or transport almost any wild animal here without a license, but blue-headed parrots and howling monkeys fill markets in the capital. The government's Espana says that those caught with contraband animals at checkpoints are rarely prosecuted.

There are no reliable estimates of the value of the trade in illegal animals coming out of Guatemala or the region. Traffic North America, a consortium project of international environmental groups, estimates the worldwide value of the trade in illegal, live animals at more than $1 billion a year.

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