Planet SOS: Guatemala’s illegal animal trade

Guatemala’s northern Peten region anchors the largest tropical forest north of the Amazon but as more people settle in the area, poaching and other threats to its biodiversity are rising fast.


Guatemala’s northern Peten region is home to the largest tropical forest north of the Amazon.

But as more people settle in the area, poaching and other threats to its biodiversity are rising.

A group of scientists is working to save a number of species.

Al Jazeera’s David Mercer reports from Guatemala.

Botswana rhinos face total wipe-out as poachers run amok

BySouthern Times —

Nov29,2019 — Mpho Tebele

Gaborone – Rhino poaching has become rampant in Botswana as six endangered
black and white rhinos were killed by poachers in the Okavango Delta in a
short period of less than two months between October and November.

According to the latest information reaching The Southern Times, the
Southern African nation poaching epidemic has escalated as the latest
figures have surged from nine in April to 15 rhinos killed this year.

This was confirmed by the rhino coordinator at the Department of Wildlife,
Dr Mmadi Reuben. “Since the last time we issued a statement in October about
the increasing number of rhinos killed by suspected poachers, we have
recorded at least six incidents of rhino poaching which brings the number of
rhinos killed since April from nine to 15,” he said.

He said they were monitoring rhino movements through darting and tagging

“If we were not monitoring their movements, we would not have known about
these incidents,” he said.

He said going forward, there was a need to adopt a solution that was

Reuben said there was a need to sensitise communities living along the delta
so that they could report suspicious people in their localities to law
enforcement agencies.
“We also have to intensify monitoring of these animals so that they are all
accounted for,” he said. He said in the past, Botswana did not have large
numbers of rhinos and following relocation of rhinos from her neighbours,
this could have triggered a surge in poaching of the endangered species.

“The private partnership that we have also needs to be intensified. The
value these animals have in diversifying the economy cannot be
underestimated. Those who have these species should ensure that they are
protected and not decimated,” he said.

Reports indicate that poaching is escalating in the region, driven by demand
for rhino horn in Asian countries, and authorities are overwhelmed.

Botswana is home to just under 400 rhinos, according to Rhino Conservation
Botswana, most of which roam the grassy plains of the northern Okavango

In collaboration with government, Rhinos Without Borders and Wilderness
Safaris, Rhino Conservation Botswana recently completed a large operation to
dart and tag previously untagged wild rhinos in the Okavango Delta.

The team darted rhinos and fitted each rhino with a tracking device, taking
body measurements and a DNA sample, as well as clipping ear notches onto the
rhinos ears which serve as easy to identify unique identification marks.

Last month, the Ministry of Tourism raised alarm that a rhino was killed on
2 October, following a recorded poaching incident on 27 September in the
core rhino range in the Okavango Delta.

According to a statement issued by the ministry, the poaching incident at
the time brought the number of rhinoceros poached this financial year alone
from 1 April 2019 up to now to nine, an unprecedented number.

The ministry expressed concern that the increased poaching of rhinos was
deeply worrying in a country that has over the last few years received
rhinos in an effort to safeguard and revive rhino populations.

“Botswana does not have many wild rhinos, our population is relatively
small,” said Reuben at the time.
“We have been losing about a rhino a month to poaching; losing two in one
week is unacceptable. If the poaching continues at this rate there will be
no rhinos in Botswana in a year or two, especially the black rhino, a
critically endangered species.”
The ministry said this would be a huge loss for the country with a strict
and strong anti-poaching policy, which the government had committed immense

Man arrested in Sakai City on charges of smuggling

Google translate of first paragraph:

The fear of extinction: “Kazumeka otter”;

Nov 27, 2019 17:03:00

A 54-year-old man who lives in Sakai, Osaka, was arrested for trying to
smuggle two Kotsumeka otters that are popular as pets and traded at high
prices in Thailand. The police are investigating as they tried to smuggle
the endangered Kotsumeka otter for resale.

Arrested by Hiroyuki Matsui (54), a self-employed person living in Sakai,
According to police and customs, Matsui suspected that in September, he
tried to bring two Kotsumeka otters, which are inter

Live finches being smuggled into US in hair rollers discovered

Live finches being smuggled into US in hair rollers discovered

In this photo provided by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, some of the 70 live finches hidden inside hair rollers found Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport are displayed. Authorities say a passenger arriving from Guyana had the songbirds in a duffel bag. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection via AP)

NEW YORK — Customs officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport say they found 70 live finches hidden inside hair rollers.

Authorities say a passenger arriving from Guyana on Saturday had the songbirds in a duffel bag.

The New York Times reports officials believe the birds were brought to the U.S. to participate in singing contests. Customs officials say people bet on how many times the finches chirp, and a winning male finch can sell for up to $10,000.

The birds were turned over to veterinarians to the U.S. Agriculture Department, and the passenger was sent back to Guyana.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection says bird smuggling could threaten agriculture through the possible spread of diseases such as bird flu.

Customs officers have seized about 184 finches this year.

In Southeast Asia, illegal hunting is a more immediate threat to wildlife than forest degradation

In Southeast Asia, illegal hunting is a more immediate threat to wildlife than forest degradation
Removing snares in Vietnam. Credit: Andrew Tilker

A new study carried out by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature Vietnam (WWF-Vietnam) and the Sabah Forestry Department of the Government of Malaysia suggests that for ground dwelling mammal and bird communities, illegal hunting using indiscriminate snares may be a more immediate threat than forest degradation through selective logging. The researchers conducted a large scale camera-trapping study to compare several forest areas with logging concessions in Malaysian Borneo and protected areas in the Annamites ecoregion of Vietnam and Laos known to be subjected to illegal hunting. The results, published in the journal Communications Biology, show severe defaunation in snared forests compared to logged forests.

“We had a unique opportunity to investigate the complex mechanisms of these defaunation drivers and compare their relative severities,” says Andrew Tilker, doctoral student at the Leibniz-IZW and Asian Species Officer at Global Wildlife Conservation, one of the lead authors of the paper. “Our rainforest study sites in Malaysian Borneo are degraded through logging but have experienced little hunting, whereas our rainforest study sites in the Annamite Mountains are structurally intact but are subjected to extremely high illegal hunting pressure. Because the two study landscapes generally have similar habitats and faunal communities, it was an opportunity for us to investigate to what extent these defaunation drivers differ in their impact on  faunal communities.”

In Southeast Asia, illegal hunting is a more immediate threat to wildlife than forest degradation
Forest degradation through selective logging. Credit: Andrew Tilker

“These findings are not only interesting from an academic perspective, they also have implications for ,” says Dr. Jesse F. Abrams, postdoc at the Leibniz-IZW and co-first author. “Our results show that maintaining habitat quality as a means of protecting tropical biodiversity is, by itself, insufficient.” The researchers suggest that, whilst both defaunation drivers should be addressed to maintain tropical biodiversity, in some cases it may be more prudent to focus limited conservation resources on addressing overhunting rather than habitat degradation.

Because hunting in the Annamites is primarily accomplished by the setting of indiscriminate wire snares, the findings of the study have implications for other landscapes in Southeast Asia, which currently are facing an ever-increasing snaring “epidemic.” In this respect, the levels of defaunation found in the rainforest study sites in the Annamites by the researchers could offer a foreboding glimpse into the future of biodiversity across the wider Southeast Asian biodiversity hotspot. Co-author Ben Rawson, Conservation Director of WWF-Vietnam, says: “Industrial-scale snaring must be addressed if we are to avoid empty rainforests in the region and retain healthy populations of what are now some of the world’s rarest species.”

The study’s findings also have positive implications for conservation. Datuk Mashor Mohd Jaini Director of the Sabah Forestry Department notes, “These results show that logging concessions can be safe havens for mammal and bird communities, particularly if sustainable forest management protocols are applied, following principles of forest certification standards” Dr. Andreas Wilting, project leader, agrees. “Incorporating these degraded sites into conservation planning strategies could substantially extend the conservation real estate for the world’s tropical regions,” he says. “Our study has made it very clear that tropical rainforests must be protected from unsustainable hunting, regardless of whether they are logging concessions or protected areas. We must get ahead of the wave of indiscriminate hunting that is sweeping across Southeast Asia. Only then can we ensure the survival of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity heritage.”

Explore further

Hunting responsible for mammal declines in half of intact tropical forests

Holding social media companies accountable for facilitating illegal wildlife trade

Florida authorities bust trafficking ring smuggling thousands of native turtles

By Alaa Elassar, CNN

Updated 4:30 PM ET, Sat October 19, 2019

Thousands of wild turtles were being captured and sold illegally in Florida.

(CNN)Two men have been charged for poaching thousands of Florida turtles and
selling them illegally, according to the
<> Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission.

The “charges represent the state’s largest seizure of turtles in recent
history,” the FWC said in a statement on Friday.

More than 4,000 turtles comprising a range of native species were illegally
captured and sold over six months, the commission said. The turtles were
worth $200,000 on the black market.

“The illegal trade of turtles is having a global impact on many turtle
species and our ecosystems,” said Eric Sutton, the FWC’s executive director.

Two suspects have been charged for smuggling thousands of turtles and
selling them illegally.

After receiving a tip in February 2018, the FWC launched an undercover
investigation where they discovered a ring of traffickers who were selling
wild turtles to reptile dealers and distributors.

The suspects had taken so many turtles from targeted habitats that
populations were depleted, the commission said.

“Wild turtle populations cannot sustain the level of harvest that took place
here,” said Brooke Talley, the FWC’s reptile and amphibian conservation
coordinator. “This will likely have consequences for the entire ecosystem
and is a detriment for our citizens and future generations.”

Investigators served a search warrant on August 12, during which they found
hundreds of turtles and the skull and shell of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle,
the <>
most endangered species of sea turtles.

The skull and shell of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the most endangered
species of sea turtles, was found in possession of the suspects.

The suspects sold the turtles for cash and marijuana products, the
commission said. Both suspects face a variety of poaching-related charges.

While the turtles were sold in Florida, they were sold to buyers who shipped
them overseas, specifically in Asia where they were bought as pets.
Depending upon the species, the commission said the poached turtles sold
wholesale for up to $300 each and retailed for as much as $10,000 each in

“Over 600 turtles were returned to the wild, two dozen were quarantined and
released at a later date, and a handful were retained by a captive wildlife
licensee since they were not native to the area,” the commission said.

“We commend our law enforcement’s work to address the crisis of illegal
wildlife trafficking,” said Sutton.

CNN’s Melissa Alonso contributed to this report.

Twenty countries to fight wildlife trafficking as organised crime

Latin American and European governments signed the Lima Declaration to combat a crime worth more than US$10 billion annually

Vanessa Romo October 10, 2019

wildlife trafficking

The first high level regional Latin American meeting on wildlife trafficking, the fourth most profitable illegal trade, took place in Lima, Peru, last week (image: Serfor)

The first high level conference on the illegal wildlife trade in the Americas, attended by representatives from 30 countries, issued an urgent call to treat trafficking as a serious crime.

The meeting, organised by the Peruvian government and major international organisations including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) culminated in 20 Latin American nations signing the Lima Declaration, an agreement consisting of 21 measures to fight an illegal activity worth more than
US$10 billion annually.

“This type of trafficking is the fourth most common in the world after drugs, weapons and people,” said Jorge Montenegro, Peru’s agriculture minister.

Environment minister Fabiola Muñoz added: “[It is] a problem that is embedded in the networks of corruption.”

Parties to the conference identified common problems from the need to link the illegal wildlife trade to organised crime, to non-existent sanctions against criminals and mechanisms enabling countries to coordinate responses. Nor is it yet fully understood how the networks that profit from this illegal business operate.

Each signatory will have to share results of their efforts at the next group meeting in Colombia in 2021.
A high-flying crime

Latin America is home to 40% of the world’s biodiversity and about 25% of endangered species, according to the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Wildlife trafficking is a great threat to this. In Peru alone, 318 species are considered potential victims and 86 feature on the IUCN Red List.

Jessica Gálvez-Durand, from Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (Serfor), said an average of 4,000 to 5,000 specimens are seized each year.

“Between 2000 and 2018, more than 79,000 species were detected, mostly amphibians and birds,” she said, adding that so far this year there have been 430 seizures.

However well such operations advance, illegal mechanisms to bypass government inspectors are also improving.

Yovana Murillo, health and wildlife trafficking coordinator at environmental NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said two years ago in Peru authorities found 29 Galapagos turtles on a bus and a number of Spain-bound Andean cock-of-the-rocks at the airport.

Kurth Duchez, a WCS wildlife traffic officer, added that reports have emerged from Guatemala, Honduras and Belize of embryonated macaw eggs being sent to Asia, a form easier to transport than when they’re hatched.

We can’t fight 21st century crimes with 20th century tools.

Some countries need to impose more severe sanctions to combat this crime. Panama, for example, currently only has a maximum penalty of five years, while in Uruguay wildlife trafficking is considered a basic infraction.

“Belize took tough actions after cases of jaguar hunting appeared. A reward was offered to arrest offenders, penalties were raised and their legislation strengthened,” Duchez said.

In Guatemala, which is developing a national strategy, the need to link trafficking with other crimes like smuggling, firearms offences and customs fraud would enable more severe penalties to be applied.

Peru was one of the first countries to develop this strategy and now associates trafficking with organised crime offences.

“We work closely with the Office of the Specialised Prosecutor in Environmental Matters (FEMA) and we are close to allowing that classification,” said Alberto Gonzales-Zuñiga, director of Serfor.

shark fin wildlife trafficking
Since November 2018, 5800 kilos of shark fins destined for China have been seized (image: Oceana)

It is necessary to coordinate action against trafficking with border countries, and also with the illegal transit of natural resources.

“With the reactivation of the South American Wildlife Enforcement Network (SudWEN) there will be better communication between authorities.
When we rescued the 29 Galapagos turtles, the transfer took more than nine months, a process that should be faster,” said Flor María de Vega, from Peru’s wildlife crime prosecution team.

Adrian Reuter, WCS species trafficking coordinator for Latin America,
said: “It’s time for countries to review their regulations and make the necessary reforms, both in coordination and in processes like wiretapping that they can use to investigate these criminal networks.”

Gustavo Romero, a Peruvian official of the National Superintendence of Customs and Tax Administration (Sunat) agreed. The Global Container Program, created by the UN and the World Customs Organisation and which is used to detect drug shipments, is now being used to detect illegal timber trafficking. This could easily be applied to the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.

“We have a strong infrastructure for better results,” Romero said, adding that for a year they’ve used an early warning system to identify certain persons suspected of trafficking as they travel.

the estimated value of a shipment of sea horses seized last week (US$)

Peruvian authorities first saw the fruits of these efforts a week ago when they seized more than five tonnes of seahorses being transferred from an artisanal boat to an industrial vessel. The cargo was valued at
US$6 million.

“It can have an economic return similar to drug trafficking,” Romero said. When traffickers become aware of port controls they simply adapt their methods since it is so lucrative, he added.

Nor is internet wildlife trafficking is not effectively controlled.

“Every month we receive 20 to 30 complaints of possible animal trafficking offenses that appear online,” said Serfor’s Gálvez-Durand.
Targeted species

The conference identified the jaguar as an emblematic species of the Americas. Its fangs, skin, bones and testicles are sold in Asia, and especially China, Li Lishu, WCS’ China specialist noted.

China has played an increasingly important role in fighting the trade in recent years and this is reflected in seizures and investigations, both in markets and the countries of origin. In the last 18 months, Chinese law enforcement has brought 580 cases for trafficking endangered species, much of which is wildlife.

However, Li said China has not yet fully recognised Latin America as a high-risk area for these crimes.

“They have begun to learn more about the danger of the jaguar thanks to the international agreement that exists to conserve it, but China’s focus continues to be on Asia and Africa for parts of elephants, tigers and rhinos,” she said.

jaguar teeth wildlife trafficking
Jaguar fangs are highly valued in China for their supposed healing and aphrodisiac properties (photo: Ecobol)

Li said that the Chinese government is open to countries’ concerns about these crimes. “The problem is the lack of knowledge on both sides about who should coordinate actions. While in Peru, wildlife functions are administered under the ministry of agriculture, in China they are under the natural resources administrator,” she said.

For a year, Li has been collecting data on endangered species that are marketed in China. She has found most adverts for green iguanas, which are sold as pets and also taken to hatcheries.

In Peru, birds and reptiles are the most trafficked, although primates, especially the yellow-tailed monkey, are the most vulnerable.
Gálvez-Durand said that Bolivia and Ecuador are also nearby entry points, and that from Lima trafficked species leave for Europe, Asia and the US.

In Colombia, ornamental river fish feature highly, as well as snakes and reptiles such as the golden tegu, and birds such as macaws and parrots, according to Sonia Uribe, from Colombia’s Directorate of National Taxes and Customs (DIAN).

Duchez said that birds and reptiles such as green and black iguana, tree turtles and vipers are the most trafficked from Central American countries.

“In Honduras and Belize there is also a lot of illegal trade in the queen snail. Generally, this traffic goes to US and European markets because Asia demands large volumes,” he said.
Work to do

Communication is a problem within countries of the region and across them. The Lima Declaration aims to strengthen cooperation at border controls.

Antonio Roma, justice system coordinator of Peru’s Assistance Program against Transnational Organized Crime (Paccto), said: “Sometimes the prosecutor in [Peruvian port] Callao doesn’t know how to contact one in [northern Chilean port city] Arica. All judicial powers, the police and penitentiary institutions must be connected.”

Ivonne Higuero, general secretary of CITES, said many of those responsible for monitoring and prosecuting do not have sufficient specialised knowledge to identify species and the seriousness of their commercialisation.

Roma said: “We can’t fight 21st century crimes with 20th century tools.”

Alberto Gonzáles-Zuñiga, director of Serfor, said they will soon launch a pilot program with the regional government of Tumbes, on the northern tip of Peru, to implement cross-border actions with Ecuador.

“A case like that of the Galapagos turtles should not cross our borders again,” he said. That time, the seizure was carried out on a bus in Piura, six hours from the border.

Scientific research in most Latin American countries on the status of their species is also under-resourced.

“Developing countries still think that environmental problems can be left for later and we already know that overexploitation is the second largest threat to the species,” Higuero said.

‘A problem in every national forest’: tree thieves were behind Washington wildfire

Tree theft, which led to the deadly Maple Fire in Washington, may be costing the US Forest Service up to $100m each year

Hall of Mosses Trail at Olympic National Park in Washington.
 Hall of Mosses Trail at Olympic National Park in Washington. Photograph: Greg Vaughn/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When two men discovered a rare and valuable 90ft-tall bigleaf maple tree in Washington State’s Olympic National Forest last year, they allegedly set about trying to steal it.

But there was a problem – the tree was home to a bee hive. The men reportedly tried to use a wasp killer to get rid of it. When that didn’t work, one allegedly poured gasoline on it, and lit it on fire.

The result, according to a federal indictment unsealed this week, was an August wildfire that raged across the eastern half of the ancient forest, setting 3,300 acres of public land ablaze and costing $4.5m to fight.

Known as the Maple Fire, the smoke from the blaze also served to exacerbate an already bad summer for the region’s air quality. There were fires raging in Canada and Eastern Washington, and as smoke from these blazes struck Seattle, at some points the city reportedly had the worst air quality in the world.

The bigleaf maple’s wood was covered in a distinct pattern, which if harvested is extremely popular for woodworking and potentially worth thousands of dollars. Before the fire, the pair had allegedly spent months illegally harvesting these high-value maple trees and selling the wood, which is used to make furniture and musical instruments.

Wilke was also specifically charged with “setting timber afire” and “using fire in furtherance of a felony” – the latter comes with a mandatory 10-year sentence, according to Seth Wilkinson, the lead prosecutor on the case.

“Timber theft, which involves destruction of a public resource, is in itself a really serious crime in this area,” said Wilkinson. “But this one is magnified many many times because of the consequences here, which involved the destruction of thousands of acres of national forest.”

The upper portions of the winding Elwha River in the Olympic National Park south-west of Port Angeles, Washington.
 The upper portions of the winding Elwha River in the Olympic National Park south-west of Port Angeles, Washington. Photograph: Chris Wilson /The Washington Post/Getty Images

Hundreds of responders from a variety of agencies came together to fight the flames west of Seattle, but the combination of an extremely dry summer and the fact that this is a dense forest with a lot of flammable moss meant that it took at least four days to control.

Wilke pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance this week and is being detained until his trial in December, according to Wilkinson. Williams was arrested a couple weeks ago and is in state custody in California, but is expected to be transferred to Washington for his arraignment.

Wilke’s attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and court records did not name a federal attorney for Williams.

Tree theft has become a problem for the Olympic forest and other national forests across the country, said Susan Garner, spokesperson for the Olympic National Forest.

“We just don’t have enough law enforcement officers out there, and many of our roads are remote,” she said. “It’s a problem, I think, probably on every national forest.”

Tree theft may be costing the US. Forest Service up to $100m each year, according to a High Country News article published in 2017. Western Washington has been one of the areas most impacted.

The indictment states that Wilke and Williams, along with other unnamed individuals, spent the spring and summer on the hunt across the Pacific Northwest forest for maple trees. When they found a good candidate, the small team allegedly used a chainsaw to fell the tree, and later cut it into smaller pieces.

With the right permits, most national forests allow visitors to harvest trees for personal use. But Wilke and Williams were allegedly selling the blocks to a lumber mill in a small city in western Washington by presenting its owner with permits saying it had been harvested on private land, according to a news release from the US attorney’s office. By the time they found the maple in early August, they had allegedly sold thousands of dollars’ worth of wood to the mill.

After officials responded to the fire, Wilke was soon on their radar when he was found in the area. He was questioned by a Forest Service law enforcement officer, but denied cutting timber, according to the indictment.

More than one year later, the charred area, which had long been a popular place for hiking and sightseeing, remains closed to the public due to lingering safety concerns, such as falling trees, said Garner. And while there are spots where greenery has started to return, there are still many sections that have not shown signs of recovery.

“People need to be aware of their actions and to stop and think about what they’re doing and to treat public lands with the deference that they deserve because they belong to all of us,” said Garner.