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Brazil moves to curb wildlife trafficking

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Belem

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The BBC joins police and environmental agents on a raid on a market

Brazil has one of the richest varieties of animal species in the world but it is also one of the biggest markets for animal trafficking.

Studies produced for the government suggest that as many as 10m animals are being taken from their natural habitats each year, a figure that can only be an estimate, as no-one knows for sure.

The only certain number is that around 50,000 animals are rescued by the authorities each year - representing just a small percentage of those believed to be taken by traffickers.

Many animals are said to die en route to market, but again the numbers are subject to conflicting claims. No-one disputes the fact that they are often transported in horrific conditions.

Animal rights groups say the law has been weakened in recent years and that the government needs to do more.

Undercover agents

An official advertising campaign has now been launched to try to change public attitudes. It shows graphic images of dead animals, with a message to the public: this happens because you buy.

Illegally trafficked birds being removed by Ibama officials
Many animals are recovered thousands of kilometres from their natural habitat

Ministers also say legislation will be improved, as well as continuing to take actions on the ground with a bigger number of inspectors.

The BBC joined an early morning briefing for police and agents of the Brazilian environment agency Ibama, as the first stage of an operation against animal trafficking was being planned.

After a call from an undercover agent the small group of agents and police officers head off to a street market in the northern city of Belem, not far from the mouth of the Amazon.

The market is typical of many across Brazil where animals are sold, sometimes legally sometimes not, and to the anger of local motorists the street is blocked off at both ends as the raid begins.

The agents go from shop to shop and stall, and eventually one man is arrested, and a small number of birds taken away to be released. Ibama officials suspect other traders selling birds illegally managed to get away.

Horrific conditions

Luiz Nelio Palheta, an analyst with Ibama, says the transportation of animals taken from the wild often involves devastating consequences.

Marcelo Rocha of SOS Fauna
From the moment you take these animals out of nature... you leave the ecosystem unbalanced, and we humans need the ecosystem to be balanced for our own survival
Marcelo Rocha
SOS Fauna

"What we see is inadequate conditions - many animals in small containers end up dying.

"We have a level of mortality that for every animal that is saved or ends up being sold, 40 or 50 y die. The level of mortality is very high."

Even when animals are rescued the problems are significant, as the resources to care for them and ensure their proper return to the wild, if this is possible, are not always there.

Many animals are recovered thousands of kilometres from their natural habitat, and more often than not it is not a simple matter of opening a cage to let them go, though this sometimes happens.

In the heart of the Brazilian countryside, the non-governmental organisation SOS Fauna receives 2,000 to 3,000 animals per year that have been recovered from traffickers

Marcelo Rocha who runs the centre has been involved in this kind of work for 19 years.

He says animal trafficking has a significant impact on the environment.

"The worst impact is the loss of biological function that these wild animals fulfil in nature," he told the BBC.

"From the moment you take these animals out of nature, it is like taking a worker away from a big company. You leave the ecosystem unbalanced, and we humans need the ecosystem to be balanced for our own survival."

Animal trafficking offers big profits - through sales in street markets or when traffickers export rarer species to Europe and the United States.

But critics say arrests, when they happen, usually result in fines which have little impact on a crime which has devastating consequences for Brazilian wildlife.

"From 1998 until now the legislation has become weaker," Marcelo Rocha says. "No-one goes to prison for the crime of trafficking wild animals, or to put it another way, a crime against humanity is not considered a serious matter."

Cultural tolerance

Brazil is a country where for centuries there has been a cultural tolerance of buying more exotic animals to keep at home, and there is also a demand abroad.

The law is there to deal with crime but unfortunately it needs to be improved
Carlos Minc
Brazilian environment minister

As well as the market for pets, wild animals are sometimes sought by private collectors, while others want to obtain feathers and skins as ornaments. Sometimes animals are wanted for research purposes.

The Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc accepts that today the law is not all that it should be, but he is promising changes.

"The law is there to deal with crime but unfortunately it needs to be improved," he told the BBC.

"It treats in the same article a person who takes one bird to sing in his house alongside a person who takes a thousand birds and sends them to Germany, England and Switzerland.

"In the same ways as with drugs policy we are going to separate and treat much more rigorously the big traffickers."

Not surprisingly for a country that is home to the Amazon and the Pantanal, Brazil has one of the richest varieties of animal species in the world.

However, the government says the number of animals threatened with extinction has nearly trebled in the last two decades to more than 600, and they put part of the blame on trafficking.

With illegal trade in wild animals now only behind the level of the drugs and arms trades in terms of profits, the challenge to bring it under control remains enormous.

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