Wildlife Trafficking

A reporter follows the lucrative, illicit and heartrending trade in stolen wild animals deep into Ecuador’s rain forest

In the Ecuador wilderness (guides Nelson, at the helm, and Paa), Charles Bergman sought the roots of the illegal animal trade (a blue-headed parrot chick). (Charles Bergman)
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We asked him if he had taken the macaw chicks. He denied it.

"But I know who did it," he said. "They told me there were only eggs still in the nest. No chicks."

We asked him about the three scarlet macaw babies he had in his canoe just a few days earlier.

"Those were from another nest farther downriver," he said. He said he had cut down another tree with crimson-fronted macaws, near his house, but the babies were already fledged and flew out of the nest hole as the tree crashed to the ground.

His story seemed garbled and doubtful. In any event, it was clear that he was poaching animals. I had traveled with a trafficker for more than a week without realizing it.

As we rode back up the river, I asked the Huaorani men if they worried that overhunting would mean their wildlife would disappear. "We have to put the brakes on," Nelson said, adding that they had to travel farther and farther just to find animals. "We see the animals disappearing. We have to raise consciousness. We want to be the protectors of wildlife."

In his early 20s, Nelson may speak for a new generation in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. A few others I spoke with shared his view. Some are hoping to turn to tourism as an alternative to poaching. The Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador, for instance, employs Quichua people as expert guides for tourists. Anti-poaching initiatives are trying to raise awareness about wildlife and provide incentives to protect it.

Still, people are poor, and they continue to see wildlife as a resource to earn money. During one nesting season, we had identified five active nests of macaws and parrots, including the scarlet macaws, two pairs of chestnut-fronted macaws, one pair of blue-headed parrots and one pair of black-headed parrots. As we journeyed up and down the river, we watched for the nest trees. Every one of them had been cut down. The parents had vanished. Here and in many places, trafficking is creating a strange world, a forest without its creatures—a naked forest.

Charles Bergman has written about jaguars and monkeys for Smithsonian and is writing a book about the wild animal trade.


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