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A Brasília animal trafficking ring to rival Netflix’s Tiger King

. Jul 26, 2020
animal trafficking brazil tiger king The cobra that unveiled an animal trafficking scheme. Photo: Ivan Mattos/Brasília Zoo

A worldwide hit during Covid-19 isolation, Netflix series Tiger King is a bizarre and immersive depiction of the world of exotic animal enthusiasts in the U.S. The eponymous big cat monarch at the center of the show is Joe Exotic, the eccentric 50-something zoo owner with a love for all things feline. Behind the dramatic — and often ludicrous — twists and turns of the seven-part series, light is cast on the shady illegal market of buying and selling exotic animals. And in Brazil, soon after the Tiger King zeitgeist faded, news of a man being bitten by a cobra in capital city Brasília ended up shedding light on an animal trafficking ring worthy of its own television series.

</p> <p>The story began on July 7, when 22-year-old vet student Pedro Lehmkul was bitten by a venomous monocled cobra. The following day, the snake was found inside a box outside a shopping mall in the Lago Sul region of Brasília, 14 kilometers from Mr. Lehmkul&#8217;s home. Since then, by way of investigations and anonymous tip-offs, police in the capital have found a series of wild animals being kept in apartments, houses, and ranches of people linked to Mr. Lehmkul, who was left in a coma after the cobra bite and left hospital last week, seeing his role switch from victim to prime suspect.</p> <p>The investigation began as soon as the Civil Police was informed that a young man had been treated in a Brasilia hospital for a cobra bite. As the species in question is highly venomous and not endemic to Brazil — being native to Asia and Africa — law enforcement suspected there could be more to the story than first thought. Detectives visited Mr. Lehmkul&#8217;s apartment, finding objects indicating that other serpents were being bred illegally. The following day, after an anonymous tip-off, Environmental Police officers rescued 10 exotic snakes — all originating from other countries — and another six wild Brazilian cobras in a horse stud farm 40 kilometers from Brasilia city center.</p> <p>The Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) promptly fined Pedro Lehmkul BRL 2,000 for breeding the animal without authorization. He would then receive a subsequent BRL 61,000 penalty for mistreatment and harboring native and exotic serpents in captivity without authorization. Members of his family will also receive BRL 8,500 fines each, for having impeded the rescue of the animal. On the same day, a man surrendered two juvenile snakes to Ibama, apparently having been convinced to do so after hearing of Mr. Lehmkul&#8217;s bite. According to the agency, the man purchased the snakes on social media. One of the animals was a Trimeresurus pit viper, whose lethal venom has no antidote in Brazil.</p> <p>Meanwhile, on the same day, civil police officers in Brasilia rescued three sharks being raised in a ranch outside the capital. Seven snakes were also found at the residence, along with a moray eel and a tegu lizard. The owner of the property — a friend of Pedro Lehmkul — was issued a notice of environmental violation at the scene and will be fined by Ibama.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Friend helped hide snakes</h2> <p>The following day, police made a further discovery. In another apartment close to Pedro Lehmkul&#8217;s residence, officers found another serpent, this time a rainbow boa constrictor. They also found the shed skin of a surucucu pit viper, several rats — presumably being bred to feed the snakes — an armadillo carcass and macaw feathers. The apartment belonged to Gabriel Ribeiro de Moura, a classmate of Mr. Lehmkul&#8217;s. The investigation concluded that Mr. Moura was responsible for hiding the serpents while his friend was in the hospital. With this discovery, the number of snakes rescued in the space of just three days rose to 25. All were taken to Brasília Zoo.</p> <p>The police operation progressed on July 16, with search and seizure actions carried out at three addresses around the capital. The first was the home of military policeman Eduardo Condi, the stepfather of Pedro Lehmkul. He was taken in for questioning and had his cell phone seized. At another location, police seized documents, veterinary drugs, and equipment used for the illegal breeding of wild and exotic animals — and another cobra. The property had been emptied, under the responsibility of a public servant of the justice system, whose identity was not revealed.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>On Wednesday morning, Gabriel de Moura was arrested after being considered a prime suspect in taking the serpents to the horse farm and hiding the monocled cobra outside the Brasilia shopping mall. His lawyer, Amanda Vieira, said she will request habeas corpus so that her client may answer the charges at liberty. Meanwhile, Mr. Lehmkul has yet to be questioned by the Civil Police for medical reasons.</p> <p>The criminal scheme in question is not restricted to vet students, however. Police believe they were assisted by Ibama employees. On July 17, the agency dismissed one employee from the Wild Animal Triage Center (Cetas) in Brasilia under suspicion of involvement in the trafficking ring. Said employee is alleged to have illegally issued transport licenses for the serpents. Ibama fired another public servant on Thursday for the same reason, after a license issued bearing her name in 2019 was found during searches of Gabriel de Moura&#8217;s home.</p> <h2>Animal trafficking: a lucrative criminal business</h2> <p>Brasilia&#8217;s Civil Police force is working with a number of lines of investigation in order to tie up the case. Among them is the hypothesis that the vet students were involved in an international animal trafficking scheme and clandestine research on exotic animals. “If the cobra is the result of a cross that occurred in Brazil, it is very likely that there are others around the country,&#8221; said police chief Willian Ricardo, who leads the case. “Even if these boys had these animals for their own collections, there is an organized trafficking group behind this, which will be brought to light,&#8221; he added.</p> <p>Investigators estimate that the monocled cobra that bit Pedro Lehmkul would be worth up to BRL 20,000 on the parallel market. This criminal business is worth around USD 20 billion per year around the world, with Brazil making up around 10 to 15 percent of the market. In terms of profitability, only drugs and arms trafficking are more lucrative than dealing in exotic animals. United Nations data estimates that 38 million animals are removed from Brazilian forests every year, and only one in ten survives capture and transport.&nbsp;</p> <p>The National Network to Fight Wild Animal Trafficking (Renctas) — a Brazilian NGO working to combat the illegal sale of animals — says it has monitored 250 groups on social media linked to the criminal practice over the course of five months. In that time, 3.5 million messages related to the purchase and sale of exotic animals were found, including cobras, spiders, macaws, parrots, and even venomous toads. The majority of these groups are maintained by Facebook communities with over 100,000 members. Renctas concluded that the import of venomous animals has become more and more common, drawing attention to the increasing number of young people involved in illegal negotiations.</p> <p>Prosecutors in Brasilia declared on Friday that they have opened a case to investigate the sale of wild and exotic animals on social media. The Cybercrime Division will examine whether there is a connection between illegal commerce of animals online and the case of the cobra that bit Pedro Lehmkul.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the monocled cobra is moving on to a career in show business. &#8216;Owner&#8217; of a <a href="https://twitter.com/najaoriginal?lang=en">Twitter account with over 41,000 followers</a>, the elegant Asian serpent starred in a live broadcast organized by Brasília Zoo on Friday afternoon.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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