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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 12:47 GMT
Bolivia struggles to halt animal trade
This oceleot is thought to be only five months old
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By Andrew Enever
in La Paz
In mid-February this year Francesca Bernebei, an animal rights campaigner working in Bolivia, discovered a man trying to sell an ocelot in the capital, La Paz.

We can arrive on foot and [the traders] will leave in helicopters or light aircraft

Colonel Dante Tarifa
She alerted the Forestry Police, an operational unit with responsibility for applying environmental law.

Unit head, Colonel Dante Tarifa, launched a covert operation. The man was arrested and the oceleot, which is an endangered species, was confiscated.

The animal trafficker was questioned by Mario Baudoin, head of the government department responsible for the protection of wildlife. But after a brief discussion, Mr Baudoin decided not to bring charges.

Laws 'meaningless'

Bolivia has been a signatory to the Cites convention on international trade of wild animals since 1975 - and since 1992 has outlawed the trading and ownership of wild animals within the country.

But the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute this case has highlighted concerns that a lack of political interest is rendering these laws meaningless.

However, Mr Baudoin defended his decision: "If he was charged we would have had to proceed with a trial which would have been extremely time consuming and expensive and we have almost no resources."

He also argued that the blanket prohibition of having wild animals as pets runs contrary to Bolivian social norms.

A girl in El Alto market with her pet parrot
A girl in El Alto market with her pet parrot
"It's customary here that everybody has a pet, but there is this law forbidding it," he said. "If you try to apply this law I don't know how many thousands of parrots and hundreds of monkeys you would have to deal with."

Bolivia does not have facilities to house confiscated animals. Already the zoos are full of "pets" people could not look after. But with so few controls of the illegal trade, markets in La Paz and Santa Cruz keep filling up with wild animals as quickly as they are sold.

Dr Christian Molina, a specialist in traumatised animals, was the vet who examined the confiscated ocelot.

He found the five-month-old cat in a terrible condition with five fractures in its legs and pelvis, intestinal and mouth infections, and malnutrition-associated problems caused by separation from the mother.

Extinction danger

He believes that in the long term the lack of action to prevent small-time traders could have serious consequences.

"Eventually all the animals will be in danger of extinction because throughout the country, everyone is hunting them either to eat or to sell, and nobody does anything to stop it," he said.

Colonel Tarifa believes that a major step in combating small-scale animal traders would be an education campaign co-ordinated by the Director of Biodiversity.

"It is very important to let these people know which animals are in danger and should not be taken from the wild. We have done this with trees, and now people know that whoever smuggles wood will lose everything."

But the problem is that such a campaign requires resources and Col Tarifa is not optimistic.

Skin smuggling

"Nobody is interested in the trafficking of animals," he said. "The lack of legal and political support leaves us paralysed."

And if work cannot be done at this relatively simple level the chances of making any impact on professional traders is non-existent.

Both Mr Baudoin and Colonel Tarifa spoke about the large amounts of wild animals or skins that are smuggled by organised criminal groups over Bolivia's borders into Chile, Argentina and Paraguay.

But knowing about the activities of wild animal traffickers is of little use if there are no resources to combat them.

Colonel Tarifa added: "They kill many alligators in remote areas but how are we supposed to get there?

"We can arrive on foot and [the traders] will leave in helicopters or light aircraft, or by boat down the rivers. We know they are doing this but what can we do to stop it?"

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