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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In the middle of the canoe were boxes of smoked meat. The charred hand of a monkey stuck out of one, fingers clenched. Indigenous people may legally hunt for subsistence purposes, but carne del monte, or wild meat, is illegal to sell without approval from the Ministry of Environment. Still, the meat is popular. At a market in the Ecuadoran Amazon Basin I saw for sale the meat of turtles, agoutis (a large rodent), armadillos and monkeys—all illegal. Other people on their way upriver to the feria carried peccaries (related to pigs), blue-headed parrots and parakeets. Selling them is just about the only way they had of making a few dollars.

The canoes carrying meat and animals for sale increased my worries about the scarlet macaws. Still, I had reason to hope the nest was intact. Paa said he had not heard anything about them. And two weeks earlier, I had heard through friends that Fausto had seen the birds at the nest on one of his trips downriver. Fausto was not with us this time. This canoe belonged to two young Huaorani brothers with English names, Nelson and Joel.

When we rounded the bend near the nest, the two macaws were sitting together on a branch. Their backs to us, they gleamed red in the morning sun. Their long tails waved and shimmered in the soft breeze. When they saw us, the birds screamed, lifted from their branch and disappeared into the dark forest. I was relieved to see them.

Then we saw the fresh footprints on the shore. We raced to the nest. The tree lay on the ground, smashed and wet. There were no chicks. All that remained were a few wet and mangled feathers near the nest hole.

We stood around the tree, speechless, as if by a coffin. Paa said he had not taken the chicks—someone else had. He shrugged. I was coming to realize, regardless of the laws in big cities, that capturing animals in the jungle is common. It's not the shadowy activity people might think; it's more like an open secret. The downed tree, to me, represented all the waste and destruction of this illicit trade, which destroys not only wild parrots but also the trees that serve as nest sites year after year. Thus trafficking harms future generations, too.

We did not know whether the babies survived the crash of the tree onto the ground. (A recent study in Peru found that 48 percent of all blue-and-yellow macaws die when their trees are felled.) Even after the nest had been robbed, the parent macaws had stayed by the downed tree, the image of fidelity and loss.

"Who do you think did this?" I asked no one in particular.

Nelson said: "Three or four days ago, Fausto was seen coming up the river. He had three scarlet macaw chicks in his canoe."

Could it have been Fausto, who warned me that he did not think this nest would survive? It had not occurred to me that he would poach these macaws, and it felt like a betrayal. The next day, on the river, we would ask him ourselves.

We were having lunch on a sandbar when we heard another canoe motoring upriver—Fausto, returning home. He had been hunting. His canoe held two live turtles and a dead guan, a turkey-like bird.


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