RIJNSBURG, Netherlands – Amid the throng of tourists returning from Brazil’s tropical beaches, one traveler stood out to Swiss customs officials at Zurich airport. His walk, they later recalled, was “funny.” Suspecting he was trafficking drugs on his body, they searched him. When they got to his underpants, they didn’t find narcotics but 25 eggs of Amazon parrots and macaws he was smuggling from Brazil. He’d strapped the eggs to his midriff to keep them warm during the 11-hour flight.
The hyacinth macaw, known as the “king of parrots," is in high demand among pet owners. Although it’s legal to trade macaws born in captivity, difficulty breeding among the birds has created demand for eggs taken from the wild / Credit: Laura Wolf via Flickr
“I remember it well,” Bruno Mainini—deputy head of Switzerland’s office of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates cross-border trade in wildlife—says of the chance bust in 2010.
Mainini and his colleagues from customs and the police had heard of similar cases elsewhere in Europe. Instead of poaching live birds in the wild, traffickers were taking the eggs from protected species and smuggling them to Europe to incubate them there. Once hatched, the babies could be passed off as the offspring of captive-held birds.
As with money laundering, which makes ill-gotten gains look legitimate, the point of egg laundering is to create the appearance that a bird comes from a legal source, which means it can be sold legally without raising suspicion.
In Zurich, the investigators were onto something: The egg smuggler at the airport told them that he was working with another Swiss national, who lived in a remote area in the mountains where he held exotic birds.
Swiss privacy laws are such that neither of the men’s names is divulged, and information about court cases is not publicly available. Mainini, however, says he recalls clearly how struck he was by the hundreds of exotic birds they found at the second man’s property.
One species quickly drew the investigators’ attention: The hyacinth macaw, a blue and yellow bird known as the “king of parrots.” This magnificent bird’s popularity among pet owners has almost led to its demise: By 1990, following a decade when an estimated 10,000 hyacinth macaws were taken from the wild for the pet trade, their numbers were believed to have fallen to a precarious low of about 1,500 individuals.
Today, trade in wild hyacinth macaws is strictly prohibited, with national laws and international agreements protecting the species. The only ones that can be traded legally are those born in captivity, and they can cost at least $10,000. Some fetch several times as much.
It’s a high price for a pet bird, but one many are happy to pay. “It’s like with a Porsche,” says German breeder Norbert Hebel. “It’s not about the price—it’s owning one that counts.”
“It’s like with a Porsche. It’s not about the price—it’s owning one that counts.” - German breeder Norbert Hebel
The caveat for breeders: Hyacinth macaws are notorious for failing to reproduce in captivity, and no one knows why. Even if they lay eggs, the embryos often die, or they’re unfertilized duds.
No one tracks how many of the birds are held in captivity or how many breed successfully, but as Hebel and other experts have attested, because they’re so difficult to breed, demand always outweighs supply. That’s why traffickers are laundering macaw eggs.
A growing crime
Harald Garretsen, an inspector with the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority in the Netherlands, where exotic birds are popular pets, has investigated wildlife trafficking across the globe. He believes egg smuggling is a growing crime because eggs are easier to smuggle than live birds—they’re small, don’t make noisy birdcalls, and if a luggage inspection is anticipated, they’re easily destroyed.
“For us, it’s hard to keep up with the inspections,” of breeders, he says. Most European countries don’t take wildlife trafficking seriously, he says, and when it comes to egg laundering, most law enforcement agencies haven’t even heard of it.
This is how it works: A poacher in the Brazilian jungle, say, takes eggs from a nest. Then he or an accomplice straps the eggs to his body—essentially brooding them—and flies them to Europe, mainly Portugal, which offers the shortest connections. Once in Europe, the eggs are taken to an established, legitimate aviary.
Aviary staff incubate the eggs, hand-rear the chicks, and slide metal bands over the chicks’ feet, which are kept on their ankles for life and are seen as evidence that the bird was captive-bred. With leg bands and pedigrees from breeders, the birds can be sold legally anywhere in the world. Even if other authorities ask questions, the import-export paperwork for captive-bred birds checks out.
That’s exactly what investigators found in Switzerland—paperwork that looked perfectly in order, leg rings that would raise no suspicion, and several young macaws that, according to the Swiss national, were the offspring of adult macaws under his care.
The only way to tell if this claim was true was to carry out a DNA parentage test. Feathers from the adults and the youngsters were plucked and sent to a lab. The results showed that three hyacinth macaws and four other protected birds were not the offspring of the birds claimed in their paperwork. Their combined value: more than $100,000.
“With this result, the only logical conclusion was that they were trafficked,” Mainini says. The court agreed, and, according to Mainini, ordered the two men to pay fines. Both are still allowed to keep and trade exotic birds, he says.
Just how many eggs or birds might have been trafficked through this one Swiss network is impossible to tell, but such cases offer a glimpse into the scale of the problem.
Austrian authorities are now working on a case that started in 2016 with the confiscation of about 80 protected birds, including hyacinth macaws, from a warehouse outside Vienna. It soon widened to an investigation into the trafficking of eggs of hyacinth macaws and other protected birds, says Andreas Pöchhacker, a customs officer on the case who has referred to the enterprise as an “egg smuggling mafia.”
“For sure, Europe is the main destination and hub for egg smuggling,” says Bernardo Ortiz-von Halle, the former director of the South American branch of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. European breeders are well-established, with the skills and technology for breeding, rearing, and laundering, and they don’t care what befalls the birds in the wild, Ortiz-von Halle says. “Europeans have a total disregard for the conservation of these birds.”
“Europeans have a total disregard for the conservation of these birds.” - Bernardo Ortiz-von Halle, former director of TRAFFIC in South America
Ortiz-von Halle recently reviewed news stories in Portuguese that mentioned egg laundering. (Portugal is connected with airports in Brazil by more than 60 direct flights a week, including via smaller airports farther inland that are closer to the forests where birds such as macaws nest.) He found reports between 2003 and 2015 of about 11 cases in which authorities had confiscated more than 358 individual bird eggs, including hyacinth macaws, smuggled from South America to Europe, mainly via Portugal.
That hyacinth macaws and other rare and exotic birds are popular in Europe is also evident from online ads. When the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, tracked offerings of threatened and endangered species in Germany, Russia, France, and the U.K. over a six-week period, the organization found 15 hyacinth macaws posted for sale out of a total of 2,881 protected birds. The vast majority of these bird species appeared to have little, if any, documentation. That makes it impossible to determine whether the people behind the posts were breaking the law by touting illegally imported macaws or other birds, says Tania McCrea-Steele, the organization’s international project manager for wildlife crime.
Conservation efforts helped the wild population of hyacinth macaws more than double between 1990 and 2000, but conservationists say egg poaching—along with habitat loss—is putting huge pressure on that still very small population / Credit: Bernard Dupont via Flickr
Despite being so endangered and a prime target for traffickers, hyacinth macaws represent one of Brazil’s most successful conservation efforts, according to Dener Giovanini, whose decades-long fight against wildlife trafficking and media appearances have turned him into a Brazilian version of David Attenborough. Giovanini says the wild population of hyacinth macaws more than doubled between 1990 and 2000 and is estimated today at 4,300 mature individuals. Nevertheless, he says, egg poaching—along with habitat loss—is putting huge pressure on that still very small population. RENCTAS, the non-profit organization Giovanini founded 20 years ago, has collected the little available information that exists about the macaw egg trade.
Brazil’s sheer size, its long borders, and the poverty of its remote communities, for which egg poaching offers a profitable income, make it hard to combat the crime. But the government isn’t even trying, according to Giovanini.
“We have no pattern for inspections, no tactics, and there isn’t any strategy for [enforcement] operations,” he says. As a result, the chances of a smuggler being caught are minimal, and punishments usually consist of nominal fines. “It’s sad, but it’s a crime that pays off,” he says.
“It’s sad, but it’s a crime that pays off." - Dener Giovanini, conservationist and founder of RENCTAS
The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the agency charged with protecting the country’s environment, referred questions about macaw egg smuggling to the Environment Ministry. The ministry did not reply to requests for comment.
Wildlife biologist Neiva Guedes, founder of the Hyacinth Macaw Project, which is supported by corporate and private donors as well as government institutions such as IBAMA, is the foremost expert on wild hyacinth macaws. She says she believes the government is taking egg smuggling seriously—but that the crime is very difficult to investigate. “It’s not a matter of going to the forest and making an arrest. It’s a matter of gathering intelligence and conducting a long investigation. So it’s a slow process,” she says.
Inspectors at work
On a cloudy, humid day in south Holland in late November 2018, Harald Garretsen, from the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, and Arno Paas, a gun-carrying environmental crime unit officer with the Dutch National Police, drove past windmills and creeks to an upscale neighborhood where Kees Houwaart has been keeping hyacinth macaws for 35 years.
The mood in the car was tense. For several years, they’d been curious about Houwaart, who’s been getting CITES permits to sell 10 to 12 chicks a year—the offspring, he says, of two adult couples he acquired legally years ago. For these notoriously difficult birds to breed, Garretsen says, the numbers are unusually high and consistent. “Either he’s one of the world’s most successful breeders, or he’s laundering the eggs.”
“Either he’s one of the world’s most successful breeders, or he’s laundering the eggs.” - inspector with the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority in the Netherlands
Houwaart invited them into his home, tastefully decorated with paintings of exotic birds and ceramic figurines of cockatoos. In the sun room, a jar filled with iridescent blue feathers sat on a side table, and on the long wooden kitchen table was a drawing of a child that read, in chunky blue and green characters, “I love you Grandpa and Grandma.”
After a few sips of espresso and a genial chat, Houwaart led the inspectors to the back of the house, where a bright ceramic mural of hyacinth macaws in Amazonian treetops adorns the walls of the aviaries of the 16 that were kept in captivity. He fetched the macaws, one by one, and held them while the team checked their microchips and foot bands against their paperwork. They found no inconsistencies. Then, as they plucked a feather from each macaw for the DNA parentage test, the birds gave offended squawks. Several weeks later, the tests cleared Houwaart of any suspicion.
Many of Houwaart’s buyers drive all the way to the Netherlands from Eastern European countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Typically, he says, he charges about $10,000 for a male and $15,000 for a female. Garretsen estimates that on average Houwaart makes more than $100,000 a year selling his macaws.
Houwaart says breeders discuss the problem of egg smuggling because it casts a dark shadow over the legal trade. That’s why he’d welcomed Garretsen’s inspection and why he eagerly provided his meticulous CITES paperwork. And it’s why he took the inspectors to a freezer in his garage and pulled out the bottom drawer to show them a dead macaw he’d kept there for months. He wanted to show Garretsen that he hadn’t remove the bird’s foot band to place it on a trafficked chick.
Garretsen knows his inspections put only the smallest dent in the illegal trade. The inspections are time consuming and expensive—DNA tests for four macaws in 2017 set his department back $13,500. That’s partly why egg laundering is ignored in most countries and the trafficking persists. But “just imagine,” Garretsen says, how much worse it would be “if we weren’t there at all.”
Denise Hruby is a journalist based in Vienna, Austria, who covers environmental and social issues in Europe and Asia ranging from human and wildlife trafficking to deforestation and climate change. She’s a National Geographic Explorer and International Women’s Media Foundation fellow. Follow Denise onTwitter.
This story was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network. Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation.