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A journey into a black market for jaguar body parts in Latin America

A journey into a black market for jaguar body parts in Latin America

In this multimedia story, Eduardo Franco Berton, follows the illicit trade in jaguar parts, showing how sellers and smugglers in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil escape laws, controls and inspections. This illegal activity, when added to other pressures, threatens to silence the roar of the biggest feline in the Americas.

''Jaguar fangs’ trafficking is a very attractive market for trade. While this market exists, the supply and above all the demand for these products will grow." - Dustin Silva, Regional Environmental Authority (ARA), Department of Loreto


At first glance, Li Ming and his wife Yin Lan, look like an ordinary Chinese couple. While they are sitting on a bench, they receive with broad smiles and kindness the relatives who come to visit them. It is lunch time. One of the visitors approaches the couple with two bags of rice and chicken. Yin stands up and politely asks the policewoman who is sitting next to me to unfasten the shackles that are cutting off her blood circulation from her hands. Almost three hours have passed now, and the judge who must attend the case of illegal wildlife trafficking for which Ming and Lan are being accused does not show up. The hearing is suspended for the sixth time.

Li Ming and Yin Lan are Chinese citizens with Bolivian identity cards. On February 23, 2018, they were apprehended in their chicken restaurant in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in possession of 185 jaguar fangs, three skins of this feline, several parts from other animal species, one 22-caliber pistol, and a large sum of national and foreign money. After a two months detailed follow-up, the authorities of the Government of Santa Cruz, the National Police and the Public Prosecutor's Office, carried out a joint operation that ended with the apprehension of the Chinese couple. It's an unprecedented case, and one that the same authorities consider to be a major blow against Bolivian biodiversity.

Between 2013 and 2018, around 171 jaguars were stalked and massacred in Bolivian forests, one of the worst killing rates since the 1970s, when these animals were chased for their skin. Nowadays, these felines are victims of the black market of jaguar parts, mainly fangs. Thus, to date, authorities have seized a total of 684 jaguar fangs from Chinese smugglers. Of these, 119 fangs extracted from Bolivia were confiscated by customs authorities in Beijing, China. In most cases, these fangs were camouflaged in the middle of key rings, necklaces, chocolate and wine boxes, to hide the crime that was being committed.

These illegal goods could form a monument to human greed, promoted by superstitions and the dark business of wildlife trafficking, which each year moves an estimated 19 billion dollars worldwide, and which today is among the threats to the biggest cat in the Americas.

Jaguar fangs for traditional Chinese medicine

For more than 1,000 years, the use of Asian tiger parts (Panthera tigris) has been part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) regime, as an alternative to expensive Western medicines. Although China banned the use of tiger bones in 1993, the sale of the product and its derivatives never stopped. And many people in Chinese culture believe that due to the strength of this animal, and its mythical power, its parts have medicinal qualities that help treat chronic ailments, cure diseases, replenish the essential energy of the body and offer aphrodisiac powers. They also believe, that by ingesting them, one absorbs the vital force of the animal, its vigor and attributes. In addition, it is considered a good luck religious amulet, and as a symbol of status, strength and power, by the people who exhibit them in necklaces.

Although Western medicine experts tend to ignore the healing power of the tiger parts, which they attribute to similar properties as those of an aspirin, in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Chinatowns in Europe and North America, the drug stores sell products derived from the tiger. In fact, this trade has increased since the 1980s, as the growing Chinese middle class gained more purchasing power and the use of TCM gained more prestige.

But considering the scarcity of Asian tigers, with a population estimated at just 3,200, the Asian demand seems to have found the perfect substitute: the jaguar. This is putting pressure on the 173,000 jaguars that are estimated to inhabit the Americas, according to a new study.

Richard Thomas, from the Traffic NGO, tells me that the members of his organization announced that the jaguar's fangs and claws are apparently entering the illegal trade as substitutes for Asian tiger parts.

It was in this way that authorities apprehended Li, a Chinese businessman who used to live in Bolivia. He was caught on the afternoon of March 18, 2015 with 119 jaguar fangs at the Beijing airport, which he had hidden under carefully packed wine boxes. Today, Li is serving a sentence of four and a half years in prison for the crime of smuggling wildlife. In addition, he had to pay a fine of 7,826 USD for his crime.

Regarding to Li Ming and Yin Lan, they are accused for the crime of Destruction and Deterioration of State Property and National Wealth, according to the 223 article from the Bolivian Penal Code, which has a penalty of one to six years in prison. And given the seriousness of their crime, the Bolivian authorities and representatives of civil society, have requested to give them the maximum penalty.

Fang traffickers offer between $100-150 for each jaguar fang. This price rises as high as $5,000 in China / Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton 

Jaguar fangs in Beni

I travel to a local market in the city of Trinidad, capital of the Department of Beni, Bolivia, where I enter what it looks like a common craft shop. On the shelves, I carefully observe two jaguar skulls that seem to belong to juvenile felines because of their size. The skulls are still with all their fangs.

"Do you have bigger fangs?" I ask the seller, who waits for a client to leave before answering me.

"Yes. Come here," he whispers.

And from a drawer, he pulls out three large jaguar fangs, about eight centimeters each, which he places on a table with a transparent plastic tablecloth.

"How much are these?" I ask him.

"They cost 100 dollars each. If you notice, they are bigger than those in the skulls."

"I am interested. Could you sell me 10 fangs on collars?"

"Sure. I can prepare them by tomorrow afternoon."

"Okay. Can I take a picture of these three fangs?"

"Do not! Then the police could come."

"It must be a delicate issue, right?"

"No…they will sentence me to three years and I will get substitute measures and will not go to jail, but they will still make me waste my time. And I will shoot the 'asshole' that does that to me, and then I will be imprisoned 30 years for murder."

During my visit, I observed the illegal sale of four skulls and 26 jaguar fangs. The fangs I was offered at 100 dollars can cost up to 1,500 or 5,000 USD in China. Reaching and even exceeding in some cases, rhino horns prices on the black market.

According to Marco Antonio Greminger, who is in charge of the wild fauna conservation project in the Departmental Government of Beni, the Bolivian environmental law N° 1333 has a very short penalty, since it establishes sanctions of up to six years. "If they find someone selling jaguar fangs, this person can recognize his guilt, and he will undergo an abbreviated trial in which he will get a three year sentence and will not go to jail. And the only thing he is obligated to do is sign a daily book, and after all he will continue with his illegal business, which generates a lot of money", explains Greminger.

In Bolivia, the jaguar is in a Vulnerable state, according to the Red Book of the Vertebrate Wildlife of Bolivia. According to a new study published in PLoS One, a scientific journal, in which researchers from the Panthera organization participated, among others, the estimated population of jaguars in the country is 12,845, placing it in fourth place, after Brazil, Peru and Colombia.


Jaguar parts in Iquitos markets

I head for the corridors of the lower part of the Belen market, one of the most dangerous places in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru. I feel the intense smell of smoked meat concentrated in the air, and I light a cigarette to try to disperse it. ''! We have meat! “, it shouts a lady. But the aroma I sense is not beef, chicken or pork. And in front of me, the vendor offers me sajino meat (wild pig), tatú (armadillo), deer and caiman. An old woman picks up a piece of deer meet and asks the vendor to cut her five kilograms.

In a blue swimsuit, a man invites me to buy six live turtles. In front of me, a woman has a tiny ‘’Titi’’ monkey that is screaming, the animal’s leg is tied to a chair and it despairs when her owner offers it a piece of fruit. While this is happening, dozens of distrustful looks follow each one of my steps.

In one of the stalls, a stuffed boa constrictor catches my attention. ''Come young man, if you want, I can wrap it up so you can pass it through the airport'', the saleswoman tells me.

"I have been told that you have jaguar fangs," I tell her.

"I had but I have sold them all. But when the river waters goes down they will bring me some more. Would you be interested in buying skins?"


The woman takes me to a warehouse with a large blue wooden door and a silver padlock; inside it she hides two jaguar skins, which she offers me for 200 soles each, or the equivalent to 61 USD.

"How can I pass these skins trough airport controls?" I asked.

"If you want, I can ask a man that can cut the skin into pieces. He will charge you 50 soles, and then you can take it in your suitcase."

"Thank you. I have to think about it"

"And where can I get the fangs?"

"You must go to the craft shops."

During a daily scene in the market of Belen, the sellers begin to distrust my presence, and the policeman who accompanies us for protection, tells us that it is better to leave.

Pedro Perez, who is a wildlife expert biologist and researcher at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), tells me that the prohibition laws are not working and that it is very complicated for the authorities to carry out controls on illegal wildlife sale. "In some cases when local authorities have entered these markets, all the vendors come together and threaten them and do not let them out", Perez explains.

When I arrive at the craft shops I find that several shops are offering jaguar fangs. In some of the cases, they sell the fangs as a craft, with a built-in collar. Others have them hidden from the public view.

''You will not find bigger fangs in Iquitos, because there are a lot of buyers who pays 100 USD," a seller tells me.

"And who buy them?"

"The Chinese. They are buying them."

The bigger fangs are being offered at approximately 250 to 300 soles (76 to 91 USD), although, depending on their size they are offering the smaller ones in 100 or 150 soles (30 to 45 USD).

In one of the stalls, a woman offers me a skull of a juvenile jaguar at 350 soles and tells me that tomorrow she can prepare me a "beautiful" necklace with the four fangs.

In another store, a salesman tells me that due to the high demand for the fangs, there are people who are wearing down the teeth of the sea lion (Arctophoca australis), to make them look like jaguar fangs. ''The Chinese look for the Otorongo [jaguar] fangs as if it were gold for them'', says the man, while he shows me a jaguar skull that he has hidden in a bag.

This is how the traffic of jaguar parts develops in the different markets of Iquitos. Where vendors, tourists and Chinese smugglers sell and buy fangs, claws, skulls and jaguar skins, avoiding authority controls and a prison sentence of up to four years under the Peruvian criminal code.

''The jaguar fangs’ trafficking is having a very attractive market for trade. While this market exists, the supply and above all the demand for these products will grow", explains Dustin Silva, who is responsible for the wildlife office from the Regional Environmental Authority (ARA) of the Department of Loreto.

Dustin tells me that since there is a demand for fangs and other parts, it can make the total jaguar population of Peru  — estimated at 22,210 individuals according to a recent scientific study  — to go in decline, considering that these felines only reproduce once a year.

Given the problems in Iquitos, one of the challenges that Silva faces is to strengthen the control of wildlife traffic in river ports. "Although there are control ports and customs, but due to the size of ports in the Amazon, it makes these controls much more difficult", he says.


How to smuggle fangs 

Gabriela, who sells jaguar skins and fangs in a community around Iquitos, nearby the Amazon River, explains to buyers how they can smuggle fangs. "We grab dried leaves and wrap them very nice. And we teach them that they have to hide it in the middle of their clothes. We have already done so several times, because if Customs finds out, they will take it away".

Gabriela tells me that she recently sold eight jaguar fangs. ''After I sold my fangs people kept asking if I have more and more, almost every week. Just a week ago a Chinese guy came and asked me if I had more fangs to sell''.

Gabriela explains me that with the income she generates by selling the fangs and skins she helps to support her children. ''The Chinitos (Chinese) love them, because when you wash the fangs they are bright white, like little pearls’’, she says.

According to a report from the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), during the period 2000-2015, a total seizure of 38 jaguar fangs was recorded in Peru. They were confiscated in warehouses in the city of Lima, in March 2015.

Rosa Vento, who is the manager of the Wildlife Traffic and Health Specialist Initiative at WCS Peru, says there were another 34 jaguar seizures during that period. Nine were skulls, 14 were skins and 11 were live animals. "This means that it is necessary to further strengthen efforts to educate and sensitize the population about what illegal trafficking implies," says Vento.

Miriam Cerdan, who is the director of the General Direction of Biological Diversity (DGDB) from the Minister of Environment from Peru, tells me that traffic of jaguar parts is not very intense in Peru. "There is not a seriousness that we can notice in the country at this moment," says the authority.

But during my visit to Iquitos, I observed a more worrisome situation. And in just seven days I witnessed the sale of 44 jaguar fangs, four skulls, five skins and about 70 claws. All these products once belonged to about 24 jaguars. In addition, a large majority of the vendors claimed to have had jaguar products for sale and that soon, when the river level dropped, the hunters would bring them back more products. 

Handicraft shops in Iquitos sell fangs, skulls and jaguar claws. Several vendors hide the fangs from public view to avoid controls / Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton

Brazil and the jaguar skin market

Thais Morcatty is a Brazilian biologist who is doing her doctorate on wildlife trafficking at Brookes University in Oxford, United Kingdom. As part of her investigations — which are the first studies in Brazil on this subject — Morcatty found that at least 30 seizures of jaguar parts took away in Brazil the last five years. This meant the death of more than 50 jaguars. "That seems little, but it is not, because what we have managed to see so far is certainly a very small part of what is really happening, since it is an extremely hidden trade", said Morcatty.

The researcher also revealed that the main seizures have been skins, which shows that illegal Brazilian market still demands them. "We have evidence of trade, including international trade within our territory", she said.

In Porto Jofre, in the western area of the Mato Grosso state, I talk to Carlos Souza, a fisherman who comes here in search of the peace offered by the waters of this warm region from the Pantanal. This man still remembers with regret the death of Sally, a jaguar that was found dead on March 29, 2014 in the Cuiaba River. The event mobilized the local population, and they even offered a reward of 2,000 USD to catch the killers.

The case of Sally was added to the killing of two other jaguars that were killed that same year in this region, apparently and according to the authorities, at the hands of drug traffickers who use the Cuiaba, Paraguay and Pirigara rivers to transport cocaine between Bolivia and Brazil.

"Sally was not killed by local hunters, because in the Brazilian Pantanal, people take great care of jaguars, because they are a benefit for tourism", Souza said. This region has 11 jaguars per square kilometer, which is considered the highest population density of this feline in the whole continent and has allowed the development of ecotourism.

Morcatty stressed that each jaguar is very important for the forest, since being a predator that occupies a large area (between 50 to 300 square kilometers of tropical humid forest, in order to find enough food) is in charge of controlling the population of other mammals, especially herbivores and frugivorous species. And even removing only one individual from a population can cause an imbalance in a large area of the ecosystem and an impact on the functionality of the forest. 

A jaguar occupies territory covering 50 to 300 square kilometers, fulfilling a vital role in regulating the populations of other species, mainly herbivores / Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton 

Jaguar and human conflicts

Biologist Pedro Perez thinks that the perception from communities in Peru regarding the Jaguar is quite negative. ''If they find this cat, they will shoot him," he says. "First I will kill you before you come and eat me, they think. And this is a generalized idea in almost all communities."

Perez also tells me that due to the excessive amount of bush meat sold in Iquitos each year (345 tons), the jaguars are no longer finding their natural prey. "If they do not find their prey they will have to enter the places where communities are raising cattle and pigs. That is when they come into conflict with humans'', explains.

Rafael Hoogesteijn, who is the Director of the Feline / Livestock Conflict Program in the Panthera organization, explains me that hunting for reprisals against cattle predation is more intense in areas where human hunting reduces the abundance of natural prey.

Gabriela, the skin and fang trader, tells me that in her community the jaguars are well feared, since they consider them a very ferocious animal. ''When we see them we do not leave them alive anymore. It is a very fierce animal here. It is mostly men who hunt it'', says Gabriela.

But for Pedro, who has spent a long time in the forest doing his research, these cats fear us more and the chances of an attack are very low. ''Maybe in certain circumstances they can attack, but these circumstances are few. Normally they move away, they leave. We have never had problems with an Otorongo'', he explains.

Someone who has experienced these conflicts before is Bruno Bemes, a cattle rancher who lives in Trinidad, Beni. Bemes states that in the Department of Beni, as in other Bolivian departments where livestock is practiced, the conflict between jaguars and men is a big issue, and the farmers have many losses. ''In most cases the solution is to kill the tiger (as it is known in Bolivia). But it is a shame. And there is that belief that it is a natural enemy", says Bemes.

I spoke with a man that some cattle ranchers from Beni call to solve their conflict with the jaguar. The hunter, who asked not to be named, claims to have killed 28 jaguars, besides another high number of cougars (Puma concolor).

"The first time I hunted a jaguar was because he try to attack me," he told me in an interview. "I almost died, and saved my life for little. And that is how I created anger for this animal.'' The hunter says that resentment is a valuable weapon when he goes to the jungle to stalk jaguars and pull the trigger of his rifle.

"What do you do next with the body of the hunted jaguar?"

"The head and the skin are a trophy for the hunter. Although now, the claws, head and skin are sold to foreigners, as the Chinese. They pay good money, between 2,000 and 3,000 bolivianos for the four fangs (between 287 and 430 dollars). And nowadays hunters are looking for that."


The disappearance of the jaguar kingdom

The habitat of the third largest cat in the world had a wider distribution in the Americas, but today, its historical territory has been reduced by 46%.

A study, by Rafael Hoogesteijn and colleagues, determined that the jaguar's distribution in Latin America, for the most part, is affected by the loss of habitat. This is due to the transformation of forests into soybean crops and other forms of large-scale intensive agriculture, and the establishment of pastures for livestock, and smallholdings.

For Peter Olsoy, one of the authors of a scientific study that has quantified the effects of deforestation and fragmentation on jaguar populations, the corridors used by these felines to connect among jaguar populations is the most affected. In this way, the study quantified the amount and rate of deforestation of the Jaguar Conservation Units (JCU) and the corridors between the year 2000 and 2012. The results of the research indicated that the JCU lost 37,780 km2, and that the corridors lost 45,979 km2 of forest in 12 years.

Olsoy explains that corridors increase jaguar genetic diversity, reduce inbreeding and help to ensure the long-term survival of the species. Therefore, deforestation in these vital areas for these big cats can isolate populations and lead to the extinction of the local population.

In regard to habitat loss, according to data from SERFOR, in 2016 alone, 164,662 hectares of Amazonian forest were lost in Peru. The average loss of Amazonian rainforest in the period 2001-2016 was 123,388 hectares.

In Bolivia, deforestation is also worrisome. And according to the Environmental Indicators of the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the country is in seventh place among the 10 countries with the highest deforestation worldwide, and its forested area was reduced by 80,310 km2 between 1990 and 2015. Also, data from the national authorities revealed that in 2016 alone, 325,058 hectares of forest were cleared. 

Hairo Toledo and Nicholas McPhee sailing toward San Carlos / Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton 

San Carlos: A safe place for jaguars

After contemplating a magical Amazonian sunset, we embarked on our navigation over the Machupo River, in the municipality of San Ramon, Beni, Bolivia. After five hours, and almost at midnight, the engine of our boat suffers a flaw and leaves us stranded in the middle of a narrow river full of black caimans (Melanosuchus niger) up to four meters long and capable of turning our boat with ease. When we turned the lanterns on, dozens of wasps comes directly flying to our face. For a moment, we mentally prepare ourselves to spend the night in the boat.

Almost one hour later, Hairo Toledo, our guide, managed to solve the flaw. We continued our trip, and after another five hours we finally arrived to San Carlos, a cattle ranch of 5,160 hectares where jaguars are safe from human conflicts and fang trafficking.

Nicholas McPhee (35) is an Australian who has always been passionate about big felines since he was a child. He has lived in Bolivia since 2014 and since then, he has had 80 encounters with jaguars in the wild. Unlike the hunter I interviewed, who stalks these felines with a rifle and bullets ready to annihilate them, Nick — as his friends call him — goes out to look for them with a camera, hoping to obtain photos and videos that he shows tourists who contact his ecotourism organization, Nick's Adventures Bolivia.

"How did your passion for jaguars start?"

"I have always loved big felines. Jaguars are like ghosts; they are very difficult animals to see in the wild. Even many biologists who spend their life in the jungle have never seen it before. Then, it has always been something quite special for me to find them."

"What was your most special encounter?"

"The first time. It was in Madidi National Park, although it was only a five seconds sighting but after looking for 11 days it was incredible. We saw it on the river bank before the cat entered the forest. From that moment I just wanted to see them again and again and learn more about them."

Nick’s organization and the Foundation for the Conservation of Parrots in Bolivia (CLB) are two allied institutions that are promoting the San Carlos Wildlife Eco Reserve Project —  a pioneering project in Beni that, with the help of ecotourism, is helping to conserve the forest and compensate the livestock loses caused by the attack of felines in the San Carlos ranch.

Part of the income generated by the tours helps to compensate for the losses of cattle ranchers, caused by jaguar attacks on livestock. "The idea behind this project is to demonstrate that jaguars can become a benefit and not just a problem. That the ranchers can coexist with the jaguar and see that there are alternatives than only killing them", explains Nick.

Through his tours in San Carlos, Nick wants people to learn more about these animals. ''Most people who come have never seen a wild jaguar before. With our tours, we show them that these animals are not "killer machines" and that they are not "eating people all the time", says the ex-marine who once served in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

A study by researcher Enzo Aliaga and sustainable tourism specialist, Marcelo Arze, indicate that a live jaguar can generate up to four times more money to the Bolivian economy for tourism, than what would be generated by its illegal hunting. A hunter obtains an income of 400 USD for a jaguar's four big fangs, but alive the animal generates about 116 dollars each year in tourism income. Considering its life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, and with the current flow of tourism in the country, a jaguar could generate about 1,514 USD.

Night falls in the forest of San Carlos and in the middle of the penumbra we hear the bellows of a jaguar. First, the sound is distant, but after a while, we hear it closer, about 200 meters from the camp. Nick explains to me that male jaguars perform this type of bellowing mainly in the Amazon, in order to make its presence known and protect their territories from other males, or when they try to attract the attention of a female.

''It cannot get closer, because this area is flooded'', says Hairo, while our faces retain their astonishment from the moment we just experienced.

The arrival of Chinese citizens in Bolivia

According to data from the National Migration Office, 28,800 Chinese citizens arrived in Bolivia in the period 2015-2017. Of these, almost 70 percent, or 20,098 people, entered for tourism. However, 1,203 entered for work, 3,687 for unspecified reasons and 3,490 were returning the country.

Liang Yu, the ambassador of China in Bolivia, told the press that his country's cooperation in Bolivia, by 2018, is more than seven billion dollars. This money is being invested mainly in the construction of roads, industrial plants of sugar, potassium and lithium. The diplomat said that Bolivia is the most important trade partner that China has in the Latin-American region.

But Chinese loans are not free of conditions and the Bolivian government has accepted them in that way. The Supreme Decree No. 2574 from November 3rd, 2015 states that the contracted companies must be "conformed to the majority of capital from natural or legal persons from the China Republic, who are incorporated in their country of origin or in the territory of the Bolivia".

In an interview with the press, Angela Nuñez, who is a biologist that has specialize in wildlife management and conservation, affirmed that these growing trade links between Bolivia and China have allowed a large number of Chinese citizens to enter the country. And a large number of these citizens are encouraging illegal hunting and creating illegal trafficking networks.

Back in the courtroom where Li Ming and Yin Lan are waiting for the judge to arrive, the Bolivian justice seems not to be the best allied for wildlife conservation. And the defendants obtain a ruling in their favor that orders the cessation of their preventive detention in the ‘’Palmasola’’ jail. This indicates that they can leave the prison and defend themselves in freedom, for the continuity of the trail. Six months have passed since their arrest and the oral trial has just begun. And so, while the lethargic Bolivian justice moves forward, somewhere in the forest a bullet just struck down another terrified jaguar, by greedy hunters that will tear out his fangs to feed the illegal trade. 

Banner image: One of Brazil's most alarming cases was the confiscation of 19 dismembered jaguars found in a freezer in Curionópolis, Pará in 2016 / Credit: Déo Martins - Infopebas