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Animal trafficking: an open wound in the Amazon

Animal trafficking impacts 160 species in the region – a market that generates more than R$ 115 billion a year – and is intertwined with other illegal activities, such as mining, drug trafficking and deforestation

Eduardo Laviano

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)


The Brazilian Amazon is one of the world's main zones of wild animals trafficking, a broad crime so immersed and hidden in the entrails of the forest that it is even difficult to measure its range. The most comprehensive and recent study on the subject points out that, annually, about 38 million animals are affected by hunting and illegal trading throughout Brazil.

The data come from a report that analyzed the trafficking of wild animals in Brazil between 2012 and 2019.

In this period, 160 species were trafficked in the Brazilian Amazon: 38% were fish (for food or ornamental purposes), 34% birds (for food, crafts or captivity), 15% mammals (for food, captivity or fur), 12% reptiles (for feeding, captivity, collections), with less than 1% unidentified amphibians and less than 1% unidentified butterflies. When evaluating the trafficking frequency by species, that is, excluding single seizures (isolated actions), the number drops to 72, 53% of which are fish, 18% mammals, 15% birds and 14% reptiles.

The survey was produced by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the non-governmental organizations Traffic and International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to the study, captures of jaguars increased by 200% from 2012 to 2018. 

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"At the end of the chain, collecting these animals, are the vulnerable families, with little network of protection and support from the State. The big challenge is to make this population aware"
Renato Madsen , deputy from the Federal Police

The current trade accelerated the disappearance of 1,173 species facing extinction in Brazil in a worldwide market that reaches R$ 115 billion a year, according to estimates by the Global Environment Facility. 

The report also points out that the relationship between wild fauna and the local population in the Amazon is influenced by the relatively recent occupation of the region, the close ties with indigenous peoples and other traditional communities, the vastness of the region, the accessibility made mostly by rivers and the high levels of poverty.

Alex Lacerda de Souza, surrogate superintendent of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) in Pará, points out that animal trafficking involves several purposes, ranging from the trafficking of living beings, to become pets, to the religious or medicinal practices using parts of the dead animals bodies. 

"Here we have a very specific example of the use of snake fat for rheumatic diseases treatment, even without scientific proof. It also occurs with poraquê fish and the sexual organs of botos [river dolphins], used in rituals. These are very specific situations in the Amazon", he says. He recalls that adopting wild species as pets is also customary in the region, especially parrots, macaws, tortoises and coatis. There is also a strong demand for certain meats for food, such as those from turtles, capybaras and deer, sold at fairs in cities in the interior of the state of Pará.

Territorial extension makes inspection complex

The territorial extension of the Amazon region, with more than five million square kilometers, is an obstacle to the fight against animal trafficking, since monitoring such a large territory requires a large number of employees from the inspection bodies. 

"Today, our main obstacle is the lack of personnel. The number of employees in the environmental agencies has decreased a lot in recent years. The region is huge, complex, with different means of transport, rivers and forests. There are many planes flying under the radar. Planes not only carry out illegal mining, they also transport wild animals on the same routes. On rivers, for example, it is common for ferries to bring turtles in the hold. We cannot effectively control this completely", admits Alex Lacerda.

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“Stress can lead wild animals to death”, Alex Lacerda de Souza (Cristino Martins/O Liberal)

He estimates that for every animal that gets to a free fair alive, another ten die during the capture and transport process. This is because captures usually involve traps that cause fractures in the animals, while their transportation is usually done ‘by the back door’, with tied and doped animals, frequently with alcoholic beverages.

"It's a series of mistreatments. Not to mention that stress can also lead wild animals to death. We've already surprised a trafficker who pierced the animal's eyes with a hot needle, who  he drugged with brandy, transported inside PVC tubes in the background of suitcases, at high temperatures. The animals struggle. These things are done in a natural way. Generally, what we catch in the region is the first middleman. At the initial point, there is someone from the rural area who captures the animal", he explains.


The existence of an initial point of trafficking is related to the fact that a considerable part of these animals is destined for the Southeast and Northeast regions of Brazil, with many of them leaving the country on international routes. 

Lacerda points to the free market in Abaetetuba as a place known for selling alligator and capybara meat, as well as the fairs in some municipalities along the Transamazônica highway. Belém is the departure point for animals trafficked out of the state.

In addition, the Amazonian borders dividing South American countries are also trafficking routes, as they are in the middle of dense forests sparsely populated and supervised. According to the USAID report, there is growing evidence that, in some parts of the border of Brazil and other Amazonian countries, especially in the triple border of Brazil, Colombia and Peru, animal trafficking goes hand in hand with drug smuggling and other illicit assets, commanded by criminal organizations that operate and profit in both sectors. 

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The rivers are also widely used for trafficking (O Liberal)

The rivers are also widely used for trafficking, in particular the Purus River, with a focus on turtles and fish for consumption, Negro River, a trafficking route for ornamental fish for the international market, and Madeira River.

"We also face attempts to circumvent inspection systems. We have a big problem with curiós [Oryzoborus angolensis] and bicudos [Oryzoborus maximiliani] here in Pará, as the purchase of animals that were born in captivity is legal. The tracking rings used to be sent with the animals' identity according to what traders reported in the system. That's when we noticed that there was a very high percentage of birds always laying four eggs, which was strange to us. Since 2018, these tracking rings have stopped being sent directly and Ibama started to perform a local supervision, monitoring the process of placing the ring. After that determination, we had a 90% drop in orders. In other words, they were 'heating up' animals taken from nature", says Lacerda.

Federal Police creates the Amazon board

Deputy Renato Madsen, from the Federal Police, recalls that the agency created, at the beginning of this year, the Board of the Amazon and Environment with the purpose of tightening the siege against the most diverse crimes in the region. He claims that animal trafficking has evolved, with criminals making illegal practices even more sophisticated as repression increases. According to Madsen, more and more, criminals try to give the appearance of legality to animals, defrauding documentation, licenses and transport guides.

"When an issue is raised from the status of “division” or “coordination” to that of “board”, it means a new moment of increased attention to the region has come. Operations are intensifying and this is important, because if the operation is against mining or deforestation, it also directly impacts on the habitat of the local fauna. Illegal actions are evolving, so are the investigations and our way of preventing them", he points out.

Besides mammals and fish, the Federal Police is also concerned with small animals, especially insects, due to biopiracy. Moreover, insects are easier to pass unnoticed in inspections. Madsen recalls that criminal groups never fail to take advantage of opportunities to profit more and this fact explains the large number of individuals related to drug trafficking who are also involved in the trafficking of animals.

"In places where there are many vulnerable populations, these criminals are seen as employment and income providers. Transnational organized crime appears legal and, under the mask of entrepreneurship, attracts people. Then, they do all sorts of collecting and smuggling, from gold to wild animals. Between the state of Amazonas and Peru, there is frequent occurrence of illegal fishing that goes along with illegal logging", he says.

He recalls that destinations are different: while most of the birds are trafficked for the national market, insects and fish are more desired by the international market, especially exotic fish, which are sent to the Asian market. In Deputy Madsen’s opinion, structuring law enforcement departments is a big challenge, just as it is to solve social vulnerabilities.

"At the end of the chain, collecting these animals, are the vulnerable families, with little network of protection and support from the State. The big challenge is to make this population aware", he says, also advocating for a clearer and tougher legislation, with more severe penalties for crimes related to animal trafficking.

Trafficked animals need to be rehabilitated

Alex Lacerda, from Ibama, recalls that the destination of these animals is always a challenge, as a successful operation needs to ensure that rescued animals receive adequate treatment and, eventually, be reintroduced to nature.

"We are registering areas for release, but the animals need to be readapted before going to nature. A parrot, for example, has its wings cut. So, recomposition of the feathers or surgeries are necessary. It takes them from six to ten months to be able to fly again", he says.

“As they are trapped, tied by the little paws, we treat many problems of strangulation and amputation here. Sometimes, also resulting in euthanasia in very serious cases”, Ana Silvia Ribeiro, veterinarian (Ivan Duarte/O Liberal)

Since 2012, the Federal Rural University already had a department dedicated to wild animals as part of the residency program of the faculty of veterinary medicine. The experience resulted in the creation, in 2021, of the Center for Sorting and Rehabilitation of Wild Animals, the first in the north region of Brazil. In the center, animals sent from several municipalities in Pará are delivered by environmental agencies and treated. More than 50% of the cases are related to birds, including birds of prey, says the center's coordinator, Professor Ana Silvia Ribeiro.

"Traffickers capture many bird cubs, from endemic species to baby parrots. Usually, the animals have a learning and adaptation period in nature, but in captivity they get sick, they have bone lesions and liver problems due to poor diet. And, as they are trapped, tied by the little paws, we treat many problems of strangulation and amputation here. Sometimes, also resulting in euthanasia in very serious cases. Not to mention psychological consequences, as they are afraid of the contact with humans. Another consequence of trafficking is to make it impossible for the animal to return to nature, since it is very expensive to rehabilitate this animal biologically. They hardly ever return to nature, as they spend their whole lives in a small cage. Birds are like athletes; they need to practice flying. We see very aggressive parrots, which die from stress, they self-mutilate, all because of their resistance to treatment and human contact", says the veterinarian.

Among mammals, the ones that are more frequently treated are sloths, coatis, anteaters, lagomorphs and exotic rodents, such as guinea pigs. 

Matheus Felix, resident veterinarian (Ivan Duarte/O Liberal)

Ribeiro also alerts about another problem with animal trafficking: many animals carry viruses and bacteria, from scabies to more serious problems. 

She reports that the Center has already received a monkey that got the herpes virus from a human and died. Reverse contamination is also common: many people who eat turtles, muçuãs [Kinosternon scorpioides] and other chelonians suffer from salmonellosis.

"Animals get sick in these trafficking captive places and this can impact the health of those who handle or buy them. It is enough evidence that we need to discuss this topic deeper. Since childhood, it is important to talk about environmental education and the importance of a harmonious connection between men, animals and species. Animal trafficking is harmful for everyone".

Major targets of animal trafficking in the Amazon

Fish trafficked for consumption: 
83% - Pirarucu
9% - Tambaqui
7% - Piracatinga
1% - Aruanã-prateado

Ornamental fish:
38% - Tetra-cardeal or tetra-neon (Paracheirodon axelrodi)
5% - Cascudo-zebra (Hypancistrus zebra)
3% - Limpa-vidro (Otocinclus affinis)
2% - Cabeça de fogo (Hemigrammus bleheri)

45% - Capybara
30% - Tapir
16% - Paca
3% - Queixada

31% - Small river turtles of unidentified species
29% - Tartatura-da-Amazônia
27% - Tracajá
7% - Pitiú