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Q&A: Inside the Fight Against Wildlife Trafficking in Brazil

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira is on the front lines in the fight against wildlife trafficking in her home country of Brazil.  The South American country, one of the most biodiverse in the world, has been plagued in recent years by an uptick in the illegal seizures and sales of various species of wildlife, including endangered...

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira is on the front lines in the fight against wildlife trafficking in her home country of Brazil

The South American country, one of the most biodiverse in the world, has been plagued in recent years by an uptick in the illegal seizures and sales of various species of wildlife, including endangered birds and mammals such as the Lear’s macaw and the golden lion tamarin. (See “Parrot Who Was Among Last of Its Kind, Said to Have Inspired ‘Rio,’ Dies.”)

It’s not just Brazil: Black market trade in wildlife is on the global agenda this week as experts tackle unregulated sales in African elephant ivory and more during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora meeting in Geneva.

The ultramarine grosbeak—a bird Machado Ferreira studied for her Ph.D.—is one of the most common targets of illegal pet traders in Brazil. Photograph by Wildscotphotos, Alamy

Machado Ferreira, who was recently named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, founded the nonprofit Freeland Brasil to combat wildlife trade through education, support for law enforcement, and scientific research. She works in collaboration with the Brazilian wildlife nonprofit SOS Fauna to provide triage care for illegally captured animals seized by police. For her Ph.D., she also developed genetic tools to identify the geographic origin of commonly seized birds, such as the red-cowled cardinal and the green-winged saltator. (Related: “Brazilian Investigators Cracking the Case of Missing One-of-a-Kind Snake.”)

National Geographic caught up with Machada Ferreira to hear about her work protecting Brazil’s native animals.

What is wildlife trafficking?

There are different kinds of exploitation of wildlife for the illegal trade: trafficking of parts and products like fashion accessories, the trade of rare animals to supply zoos and collectors, illegal hunting for sport or subsistence, biopiracy that supplies mainly drug and cosmetic industries, and the illegal trade to supply the consumer market for wild pets.

How many animals are taken in Brazil each year?

The government has not provided a single statistic on the illegal wildlife trade. But, in 2001, the nonprofit Renctas [a Brazilian organization that combats wildlife trafficking] estimated that 38 million animals are collected each year, which does not even include invertebrates and fish. (See “Opinion: End Illegal Wildlife Trafficking on World Wildlife Day.”)

Where are animals collected for the pet market ultimately sold?

The biggest volume is within Brazil. There is a international trade of rare animals, but when it comes to volume it’s the domestic trade that really counts.

What is the typical punishment for someone caught trafficking wildlife?

Here in Brazil, wildlife crimes are not considered full crimes. If you are caught transporting animals without permits, you may have alternative penalties. You won’t be taken to jail, you just have to sign a document saying that you will go in front of a judge. In the end, many offenders just have to do community service instead of going to jail. This is why we are taking a three-pillar approach with Freeland Brasil [of education, support for law enforcement, and scientific research]: If we don’t change our legislation and law enforcement, then nothing is going to change.

What happens when animals are seized by the authorities?

Many people think that when authorities seize animals the problem is solved. That’s when most problems begin. If police see the animals being collected, then they will be released immediately, but if the animals are in transport, then they will be sent to triage facilities. Depending on a number of factors, they will either be maintained in captivity, euthanized, or released into the wild.

A photo of National Geographic Explorer Juliana Machado Ferreira.
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Juliana Machado Ferreira. Photograph courtesy of Juliana Machado Ferreira

How do triage facilities decide which animals to release?

The animals have to be healthy, strong, and not carrying any serious diseases, and there has to be an environment that will be able to sustain the natural population. Depending on the existence of genetic differences between the natural populations of the species being released, they must be released as close as possible to the populations they were collected from. This is the most difficult criterion and the one that almost never gets followed. The [Brazilian] states’ environmental sections only have allowance to work within the same state, and releasing animals in another state is very difficult. It depends on a huge bureaucracy and is very, very expensive. As a result, even animals that we have an idea of their origin are being released in the wrong place.

Why is it important to release animals in the biome where they originated?

Many times a species occurs in a large territory, covering different biomes. This means that populations of the species in question will exist in a range of temperatures, humidities, rain and drought cycles. These populations will be adapted to the natural regimens of the places they live in and, depending on the level of this adaptation, if animals adapted in one region are released in a different environment, animals may suffer to cope with the new characteristics of the environment and can even display problems such as [young] being born out of the ideal period.

How has the public responded to your message?

It is difficult because the people who are responsive are the ones who already don’t own wild animals. Children are usually incredibly receptive, but I have never seen an example of an adult who has bought poached wild animals who has changed their mind. (See “Fighting Wildlife Crime: New U.S. Strategy Broadens Scope.”)

What motivates you to keep fighting the battle against wildlife trafficking?

I feel that I acquired some knowledge about what is going on, and I’m in a position where I think I can help the situation. So if I don’t do anything, I will feel restless that I am failing. Many people don’t even know that this is happening. Because of the TED fellowship and the National Geographic Emerging Explorers award, I am getting attention to this issue, and I have the contacts and means to try to make changes.

Going forward, what do you see as your biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge will be working with politicians to change laws. Owning wild animals has a strong cultural tradition in Brazil, so much of the voting population does not want to make changes, and politicians do not want to lose all these votes “just because of some animals.” (See “New WildLeaks Website Invites Whistle-Blowers on Wildlife Crime.”)

What are you working on now?

Among other projects, Freeland Brasil and SOS Fauna are working to create a guide to distribute to law enforcement agents showing the species that are most likely to be seized, and to educate them about the steps they can do until animals can be sent to triage facilities.

We are also organizing a workshop in September that will bring together prosecutors from every Brazilian state and other South American countries. The goals are to launch a national task force of prosecutors against wildlife trafficking and to build a multinational agreement on how to combat wildlife trafficking regionally rather than in each country separately.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Katie Langin on Twitter.

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Meet the Author

Katie Langin
Katie Langin holds a Ph.D. in ecology and was a 2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at National Geographic.