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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Though the techniques for catching animals are as varied as human ingenuity, hunters often fell trees to capture chicks, which can be tamed to live with people. (Eggs are unlikely to yield chicks that live, and adults are too wild to domesticate.)

The macaw inside the nest eyed us for a time and then dropped out of sight into the cavity. The other macaw retreated to a roost above us in a tree, occasionally croaking to its mate.

Paa and Fausto spoke in Huaorani. Fausto translated: "There are no babies," he said. "They have eggs. We have to wait until the babies are bigger."

We agreed to return in several weeks, when the chicks would be near fledging.

"But don't count on the nest still being here," Fausto said. "Someone else will take these birds. I know what happens on the river."

Psittacines—the parrot family, which includes parrots, parakeets and macaws—are among the most popular animals in the pet trade, legal and illegal. And no wonder. "What more could you ask for in a pet?" said Jamie Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust. Parrots are some of the most spectacular creatures in the world. "They seem as smart as a human companion and are incredibly engaging and endlessly fascinating," Gilardi said. "Humans find them fun to be around, and have done so for millennia." (At the same time, he cautions that parrots are also demanding pets that live for decades.) Indeed, archaeological studies have uncovered scarlet macaw feathers and bones dating from 1,000 years ago in Native American sites in New Mexico; the birds had been transported at least 700 miles.

International laws may be helping to reduce some parrot smuggling. The estimated number of parrots taken illegally from Mexico to the United States declined from 150,000 a year in the late 1980s to perhaps 9,400 now. But the toll on parrots of all kinds remains huge. In an analysis of studies done in 14 Latin American nations, biologists found that 30 percent of parrot nests had been poached; perhaps 400,000 to 800,000 parrot chicks were taken from nests every year.

Many experts say wild parrots can no longer sustain such losses. Of the 145 parrot species in the Americas, 46 are at risk of extinction. And the rarer the species, the more valuable it is to poachers—which only puts more pressure on the few remaining specimens. A single Lear's macaw, one of the coveted "blue macaws" from Brazil, can ultimately sell for $10,000 or more. The trade can send even apparently healthy species over the edge. Charles Munn, a parrot researcher at Tropical Nature, a Philadelphia-based conservation group that advocates ecotourism, told me, "If you shoot macaws for meat or feathers, or if you take the babies from the nest, you can wipe them out quickly. Poaching can get out of control quickly."

Several weeks after our first visit, we headed back to the scarlet macaw nest in a large canoe powered by a 25-horse-power motor. I had been thinking a lot about the macaws, wondering if I could persuade Paa not to cut down the tree.

It was just a couple of days before a feria, or market day, at a small town upstream from the nest. Canoes loaded with people and merchandise passed us; the passengers had been traveling for days, camping on sandbars. After reaching a dirt road built by the oil companies, they would hitchhike or walk another 15 miles to the village. Many canoes held animals. We stopped to visit with one boatload of 14 people, from elders to small babies. The driver offered to sell me an armadillo. It could be a pet or a meal, he said. He pulled a struggling baby armadillo, still pink, from a bag. He would let me have it for $20.


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