This investigative piece was produced by InfoAmazonia, RAI-Bolivia e Mongabay Latam
At first glance, Li Ming and his wife Yin Lan look like two ordinary Chinese citizens. Sat on a bench, they greet the relatives who have come to visit them with warm, kind smiles. It’s lunchtime. One of the visitors approaches the couple with two bags of rice and chicken. Yin stands up and politely asks the policewoman who is sitting next to me to loosen the shackles that are cutting off the blood circulation to her hands. Almost three hours have passed. The judge presiding over the case of illegal wildlife trafficking for which Ming and Lan stand accused does not show up. The hearing is suspended for the sixth time.
Li Ming and Yin Lan are Chinese citizens with Bolivian identity cards. On February 23, 2018, they were arrested in their chicken restaurant in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in possession of 185 Amazon jaguar fangs, three jaguar pelts, several parts from different animal species, one 22 caliber pistol, and a large sum of Bolivian and foreign currency.
After two months of detailed follow-up, the authorities of the Government of Santa Cruz, the National Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office carried out a joint operation that ended with the arrest of the Chinese couple. An unprecedented case, and considered by the same authorities to be the harshest blow to Bolivian biodiversity.
Between 2013 and 2018, around 171 Amazon jaguars were stalked and slain in Bolivian forests, in one of the worst killings since the 1970s, when these animals were chased for their pelts. Nowadays, these felines are victims of the black market for Jaguar parts, mainly their fangs. To date, authorities have seized a total of 684 jaguar fangs from Chinese smugglers. Of this amount, 119 teeth sent from Bolivia were confiscated by customs authorities in Beijing. In most cases, these fangs were hidden in key rings, necklaces, chocolate, and wine boxes, to conceal the crime being committed.
These illegal goods form a monument to human greed, promoted by superstitions and the dark business of wildlife trafficking, which each year moves an estimated USD 19 billion worldwide, and which today is among the gravest threats to the biggest cat in the Americas.
Amazon Jaguar fangs for traditional Chinese medicine
For more than 1,000 years, the use of Asian tiger parts (Panthera tigris) has been part of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), as an alternative to expensive western remedies. Although China banned the use of tiger bones in 1993, the sale of the product and its derivatives never stopped.
Moreover, many people in Chinese culture believe that the strength and mythical power of the tiger give its parts medicinal qualities that help treat chronic ailments, cure diseases, replenish the essential energy of the body and offer aphrodisiac powers. They also believe that by ingesting them, one absorbs the vital force of the animal, its vigor and attributes. Besides, it is considered a religious amulet of good luck, and as a symbol of status, strength, and power by the people who show them off in necklaces.
Although experts of western medicine tend to ignore the healing power of the tiger parts, regarded in TCM as having similar properties to aspirin, in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Chinatowns in Europe and North America, drug stores sell products derived from tigers. This has increased since the 1980s, as the growing Chinese middle class gained more purchasing power and the use of TCM gained more prestige.
However, considering the scarcity of Asian tigers, with a population estimated at just 3,200, the Asian demand seems to have found the perfect substitute: the Amazon jaguar. This fact is putting pressure on the 173,000 jaguars which are estimated to inhabit the American continent, according to a new study.
Richard Thomas, from the NGO Traffic, tells me that the members of his organization announced that jaguar’s fangs and claws are apparently entering the illegal trade as substitutes for Asian tiger parts.
This led to authorities arresting Li, a Chinese businessman that used to live in Bolivia. He was caught on the afternoon of March 18, 2015, in Beijing airport, with 119 Amazon jaguar fangs which he had hidden under carefully packed wine boxes. Today, Li is serving a sentence of four and a half years in prison for the crime of smuggling wildlife. Also, he had to pay a fine of 7,826 USD for his crime.
Concerning Li Ming and Yin Lan, they are accused of the crime of Destruction and Deterioration of State Property and National Wealth, according to article 223 of the Bolivian Penal Code, which has a penalty of one to six years in prison. Also, given the seriousness of their crime, the Bolivian authorities and representatives of civil society have requested they receive the maximum penalty.
Amazon Jaguar fangs in Beni
I arrive at a local market in the city of Trinidad, the capital of the Department of Beni, Bolivia. I enter what looks like an ordinary craft shop. On the shelves, I carefully observe two jaguar skulls that seem to belong to young felines, due to their size. The heads still have all of their fangs intact.
– Do you have any bigger teeth? – I ask the seller, while he waits for another customer to leave before answering.
– Yes, come here. – He whispers.
From a drawer, he pulls out three large jaguar fangs, roughly eight centimeters long apiece, which he places on a table with a transparent plastic tablecloth.
– How much are these? – I ask him.
– They cost USD 100 each. If you notice they are bigger than those on the skulls.
– I’m interested. Could you sell me ten fangs on necklaces?
– Sure. I can prepare them by tomorrow afternoon.
– OK. Can I take a picture of these three fangs?
– Don’t! The police might come.
– This must be a delicate issue, right?
– No… They’d sentence me to three years, but I wouldn’t have to go to jail. But it would still make me waste my time. And I’ll shoot the asshole that does that to me, and I’ll get 30 years for murder.
During my visit, I witnessed the illegal sale of four skulls and 26 jaguar fangs. The fangs I was offered at USD 100 can cost up to USD 1,500 or 5,000 in China. Reaching and even exceeding in some cases, prices for rhino horns on the black market.
According to Marco Antonio Greminger, who is in charge of the wild fauna conservation project in the Departmental Government of Beni, Bolivian environmental law no. 1333 has a very short penalty, as it establishes sanctions of up to six years. “If they find someone selling jaguar fangs, this person can plead guilty and he will undergo an abbreviated trial, where he’ll only get a three-year sentence and will not go to jail.
The only thing he is obligated to do is sign a daily book, and he will continue with his illegal business, which generates a lot of money”, explains Greminger.
In Bolivia, the Amazon Jaguar is in a Vulnerable state (VU), according to the Red Book of the Vertebrate Wildlife of Bolivia. According to a new study published in scientific journal Plos One, authored in part by researchers from the Panthera organization, the estimated population of jaguars in the country is 12,845, placing it in fourth place around the world, behind Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.
Amazon Jaguar parts in the markets of Iquitos
I head for the corridors of the lower part of the Belen market, one of the most dangerous places in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru. I sense the intense smell of smoked meat in the air, and I light a cigarette to try to disperse it. “We have meat!” shouts one lady. However, the aroma I’m getting isn’t from beef, chicken or pork. In front of me, a vendor offers me musk hog, armadillo, deer, and caiman. An old woman picks up a piece of deer meat and asks for five kilograms.
A man wearing a blue speedo offers me six live turtles. In front of me, a woman has a tiny screaming titi monkey. The animal’s leg is tied to a chair, and it despairs whenever her owner offers it a piece of fruit. While this is going on, dozens of mistrusting looks follow each of my footsteps.
In one of the stalls, a stuffed boa constrictor catches my attention. “Come on, young man, if you like, I can wrap it up so you can get it through the airport,” the saleswoman tells me.
– I have been told you have jaguar fangs – I say.
– I did, but I’ve sold them all. But when the river goes down, they’ll bring me some more. Would you be interested in buying pelts?
The woman takes me to a warehouse with a large blue wooden door and a silver padlock. Inside, has two Amazon jaguar pelts, which she offers me for 200 soles each, the equivalent of USD 60.
– How can I get these through airport security? – I ask.
– If you want, I can ask someone to cut the skin into pieces. He’ll charge you 50 soles, then you can take it in your suitcase.
– Thank you. I’ll think about it. Where can I get the fangs?
– Try the craft shops.
During an everyday scene in the market of Belen, the sellers begin to get suspicious of my presence. The policeman who is accompanying us, tells us that it would be best to leave.
Pedro Perez, a wildlife expert biologist and researcher at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), tells me that prohibition laws are not working and that it is complicated for the authorities to carry out controls on illegal wildlife sales. “In some cases, when local authorities have entered these markets, all the vendors come together and threaten them and do not let them leave,” Perez explains.
When I arrive at the craft shops, I find several places offering jaguar fangs. In some cases, they sell the teeth as jewelry, already attached to a necklace. Others have them hidden from public view.
– You will not find bigger fangs in Iquitos, because there are a lot of buyers who pay 100 USD – one seller tells me.
– And who buys them?
– The Chinese. They are buying them.
The bigger fangs are being sold at approximately 250 to 300 soles (USD 75 to 90), though smaller ones are offered for 100 or 150 soles.
At one of the stalls, a woman offers me a skull of a juvenile Amazon Jaguar for 350 soles and tells me she can make me a “beautiful” necklace with its four fangs if I return tomorrow.
In another store, a salesman tells me that due to the high demand for the fangs, there are people who are molding the teeth of sea lions (Arctophoca australis ssp.) to make them look like jaguar fangs. “The Chinese look for the Otorongo [jaguar] fangs as if it were gold for them,” says the man, while he shows me a jaguar skull that he has hidden in a bag.
This is how the trafficking of Jaguar parts develops in the different markets of Iquitos. Where vendors, tourists, and Chinese smugglers sell and buy fangs, claws, skulls and jaguar pelts, avoiding authority controls and a prison sentence of up to four years under the Peruvian criminal code.
“The trafficking of jaguar fangs is a very attractive market for trade. While this market exists, the supply and, above all, the demand for these products will grow,” explains Dustin Silva, who is responsible for the wildlife office of the Regional Environmental Authority (ARA) of the Department of Loreto.
Dustin tells me that the demand for fangs and other parts can make the total jaguar population of Peru (estimated at 22,210 individuals according to a recent scientific study) decline, seeing as the felines only reproduce once a year.
Given the problems in Iquitos, one of the challenges that Silva faces is to strengthen the control of wildlife trafficking in river ports. “Though there are control ports and customs, due to the size of ports in the Amazon it makes these controls much more difficult,” he says.
How to smuggle fangs
Gabriela, who sells jaguar pelts and fangs in a community around Iquitos, near the banks of the Amazon River, explains how buyers can successfully smuggle fangs. “We grab dried leaves and wrap them very nicely. And we tell them that they have to hide them in the middle of their clothes. We have already done so several times. If customs finds out, they will confiscate them.”
Gabriela tells me that she recently sold eight jaguar teeth. ”After I sold my fangs people kept asking if I had more and more, almost every week. Just a week ago a Chinese guy came and asked me if I had more fangs to sell.”
Gabriela explains to me that with the income she generates by selling the fangs and pelts, she is able to support her children. “The Chinitos [Chinese] love them, because when you wash the fangs, they go bright white, like little pearls,” she says.
According to a report from the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), authorities seized a total of 38 jaguar fangs between 2000 and 2015 in Peru. They were confiscated in warehouses in the capital city of Lima, in March 2015.
Rosa Vento, manager of the Wildlife Traffic and Health Specialist Initiative at WCS Peru, says there were another 34 jaguar-related seizures during that period. Nine involved skulls, 14 were pelts and 11 affected live animals. “This means it is necessary to strengthen efforts to educate and make the population aware about what illegal trafficking implies,” she says.
Miriam Cerdan, who is the director of the General Board of Biological Diversity (DGDB) of the Peruvian Environment Ministry, tells me that trafficking of Jaguar parts is not so intense in Peru. “There is not a seriousness that we can notice in the country at this moment,” says the authority.
But during my visit to Iquitos, I observed a more worrisome situation. And in just seven days I witnessed the sale of 44 jaguar fangs, four skulls, five pelts, and around 70 claws. All these items once belonged to approximately 24 jaguars. Also, a vast majority of the vendors claimed to have had Jaguar products for sale and that soon, when the river level dropped, the hunters would bring them back more products.
Brazil and the Amazon jaguar pelt market
Thais Morcatty is a Brazilian biologist who is doing her Ph.D. on wildlife trafficking at Brookes University in Oxford, United Kingdom. As part of her investigations – which are the first studies in Brazil on this subject– Morcatty found that at least 30 seizures of Jaguar parts took place in Brazil over the last five years. This involved the death of more than 50 jaguars. “It seems small, but it is not, because what we have managed to see so far is most certainly a tiny part of what is really happening, as it is an extremely hidden trade,” said Morcatty.
The researcher also revealed that the main seizures have involved pelts, which shows that there is still a demand for them on the Brazilian black market. “We have evidence of trade, including international trade within our borders,” she said.
In Porto Jofre, in the western area of the state of Mato Grosso, I spoke to Carlos Souza, a fisherman who comes here in search of the peace offered by the waters of this temperate marshy region. He still remembers the death of Sally, a jaguar found dead on March 29, 2014, in the Cuiaba River. The event mobilized the local population, and they even offered a reward of 2,000 USD to catch the animal’s killers.
The case of Sally was added to the killing of two other jaguars that were killed that same year in this region, apparently (and according to the authorities) at the hands of drug traffickers who use the Cuiaba, Paraguay and Pirigara rivers to transport cocaine between Bolivia and Brazil.
“Sally was not killed by local hunters, because in the Brazilian Pantanal, people take great care of jaguars because they benefit tourism,” Souza said. This region has 11 jaguars per square kilometer, the highest population density of this feline in the entire continent, which has allowed for the development of ecotourism.
Morcatty stressed that each jaguar is very important to the forest, as being a predator that occupies a large area (between 50 to 300 square kilometers of humid tropical forest, to find enough food), jaguars are in charge of controlling the population of other mammals, especially herbivores and frugivorous species. Removing just one individual from a community can cause an imbalance in a large area of the ecosystem and a subsequent impact on the entire functionality of the forest.
Jaguars and human conflicts
Biologist Pedro Perez thinks that the perception of communities in Peru regarding the Jaguar is quite negative. “If they find one, they’ll shoot it,” he says. “‘I’ll kill you before you get a chance to eat me,’ they think. And this is an idea shared in almost all communities.”
Perez also tells me that due to the excessive amount of bushmeat sold in Iquitos each year (345 tons), jaguars are no longer finding their natural prey. “If they do not find their prey they will have to enter places where communities are raising cattle and pigs. That is when they come into conflict with humans,” he explains.
Rafael Hoogesteijn, director of the Feline/Livestock Conflict Program of the Panthera organization, tells me that hunting for reprisals against cattle predation is more intense in areas where human hunting reduces the abundance of natural prey.
Gabriela, the skin and fang trader, tells me that in her community the Jaguars are feared, as they consider them to be very ferocious animals. “When we see them we do not let them live. They are very fierce animals. It is mostly men who hunt them,” says Gabriela.
But for Pedro, who has spent a lot of time in the jungle doing his research, these cats are more afraid of us, and the chances of them attacking are very low. “Perhaps they can attack under certain circumstances, but these circumstances are few. Normally they move away, they leave. We have never had problems with an Otorongo,” he explains.
Someone who has experienced these conflicts before is Bruno Bemes, a cattle rancher from Trinidad. Bemes states that in the Department of Beni, as in other Bolivian departments where livestock is practiced, the conflict between jaguars and humans is a big issue, and farmers suffer many casualties. “In most cases, the solution is to kill the tigre (as it is known in Bolivia). But it is a shame. And there is that belief that it is a natural enemy,” says Bemes.
I spoke with a man that some cattle ranchers from Beni call to solve their conflicts with jaguars. The hunter, who asked not to be named, claims to have killed 28 jaguars, as well as many cougars.
“The first time I hunted a jaguar was because it tried to attack me,” he said in an interview. “I almost died, and only just managed to save my life. And that is how I created this rage for this animal.” The hunter says that resentment is a valuable weapon when he goes to the jungle to stalk jaguars and pull the trigger of his rifle.
– Once you’ve killed the jaguar, what do you do with its carcass?
– The head and the pelt are a trophy for the hunter. Though now, the claws, head, and skin are sold to foreigners, like the Chinese. They pay good money, between 2,000 and 3,000 bolivianos for the four fangs [between USD 290 and 435]. And nowadays hunters are looking for that.
The disappearance of the Amazon jaguar kingdom
The habitat of the third largest cat in the world once had a much wider spread in the Americas. Today, its territory is 46% smaller.
Rafael Hoogesteijn participated in a study which determined that the jaguar’s distribution in Latin America, for the most part, is affected by the loss of habitat. This is due to the transformation of forests into soybean crops, and other plants of large-scale intensive agriculture and the establishment of pastures for livestock, and smallholdings.
For Peter Olsoy, one of the authors of a scientific study that has quantified the effects of deforestation and fragmentation on jaguar populations, the corridors used by these felines to connect between jaguar populations is the most affected. To this end, the study quantified the amount and rate of deforestation of the Jaguar Conservation Units (JCU) and corridors between the year 2000 and 2012. The results of the research indicated that the JCU lost 37,780 square kilometers and that the corridors lost 45,979 square kilometers of forest in 12 years.
Olsoy explains that corridors increase the genetic diversity of jaguars, reducing inbreeding and helping to ensure the long-term survival of the species. Therefore, deforestation in these vital areas for these big cats can isolate populations and lead to the extinction of the local population.
Concerning habitat loss, according to data from SERFOR, in 2016 alone, 164,662 hectares of Amazonian forest were lost in Peru. The average loss of Amazonian rainforest in the period between 2001 and 2016 was 123,388 hectares.
In Bolivia, deforestation is also worrisome. According to the Environmental Indicators of the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the country is in seventh place among the ten nations with the highest levels of deforestation worldwide, and its forested area was reduced by 80,310 square kilometers between 1990 and 2015. Also, data from the national authorities revealed that in 2016 alone, 325,058 hectares of forest were cleared.
San Carlos: a safe place for Jaguars
After taking in a magical Amazonian sunset, we embark on our trip down the Machupo River, in the municipality of San Ramon, Bolivia. After five hours, around midnight, the engine of our boat breaks down and leaves us stranded in the middle of a narrow river, full of black caimans (Melanosuchus niger), up to four meters long, capable of capsizing our boat with ease. We turn on our torches and are attacked by dozens of wasps. We mentally prepare ourselves for spending a night on the boat.
Almost one hour later, Hairo Toledo, our guide, manages to fix the problem and we continue our trip. After another five hours, we arrive in San Carlos, a cattle ranch of 5.160 hectares where jaguars are safe from human conflict and fang trafficking.
Nicholas Mcphee, 35, is an Australian who has been passionate about big cats since childhood. He has lived in Bolivia since 2014 and has since had 80 encounters with jaguars in the wild. Unlike the hunter I interviewed, who stalks the felines with a rifle, Nick – as his friends call him – goes out to look for them with a camera, hoping to obtain photos and videos that he shows tourists who contact his ecotourism organization, Nick’s Adventures Bolivia.
– How did your passion for jaguars start?
– I have always loved big cats. Jaguars are like ghosts; they are very difficult animals to see in the wild. Even many biologists who spend their lives in the jungle have never seen them before. So, it has always been something quite special for me to find them.
– What was your most special encounter?
– The first one. It was in Madidi National Park. Though it was only a five-second sighting, after looking for 11 days it was incredible. We saw it on the river bank before it entered the forest. From that moment on I just wanted to see them again and again and learn more about them.
Nick’s organization and the Foundation for the Conservation of Parrots in Bolivia (CLB) are two allied institutions that are promoting the San Carlos Wildlife Eco Reserve Project. With the help of ecotourism, this pioneering project is helping to conserve the forest and compensate the livestock loses caused by the attack of felines in the San Carlos ranch.
Part of the revenue from the tours helps to compensate for the losses of cattle ranchers, caused by jaguar attacks on livestock. “The idea behind this project is to demonstrate that jaguars can become a benefit and not just a problem. That the ranchers can coexist with the Amazon Jaguar and see that there are alternatives to just killing them,” explains Nick.
Through his tours in San Carlos, Nick wants people to learn more about these animals. “Most people who come have never seen a wild jaguar before. With our tours, we show them that these animals are not ‘killing machines’ and that they are not ‘eating people all the time,'” says the ex-marine, who once served in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
A study by researcher Enzo Aliaga and sustainable tourism specialist Marcelo Arze indicates that a live Amazon jaguar can generate up to four times more money for the Bolivian economy through tourism than what would be made by its illegal hunting. With that in mind, a hunter obtains an income of 400 USD for its four fangs, but alive it represents about USD 116 for tourism income. Then, considering its life expectancy from 12 to 15 years, and with the current flow of tourism in the country, it could generate about 1,514 USD.
Night falls in the forest of San Carlos and in the moonlight we hear the bellows of a jaguar. First, the sound is distant, but after a while, we hear it closer, about 200 meters from the camp. Nick explains to me that male jaguars perform this type of bellowing mainly in the Amazon, to make their presence known and protect their territories from other males, or when they try to attract the attention of a female.
“It cannot get closer, because this area is flooded,” says Hairo, while our faces cannot hide our astonishment.
The arrival of Chinese citizens in Bolivia
According to data from the National Migration Office, 28,800 Chinese citizens arrived in Bolivia between 2015 and 2017. Of which, almost 70 percent, or 20,098 people, entered for tourism. Meanwhile, 1,203 came for work reasons, 3,687 for unspecified reasons and 3,490 were returning to the country.
Liang Yu, the Chinese ambassador in Bolivia, told the press that his country’s cooperation in Bolivia, by 2018, is worth more than USD 7 billion. This money is being invested mainly in the construction of roads, industrial plants of sugar, potassium, and lithium. The diplomat said that Bolivia is the most important trade partner that China has in the Latin-American region.
But Chinese credits are not free from conditions and the Bolivian government has accepted them thus. Supreme Decree No. 2574, of November 3rd, 2015, states that contracted companies must “conform to the majority of capital from natural or legal persons from the Republic of China, who are incorporated in their country of origin or in the territory of Bolivia.”
In an interview with the press, Angela Nuñez, a biologist specializing in wildlife management and conservation, affirmed that these growing trade links between Bolivia and China have allowed a large number of Chinese citizens to enter the country. And a large number of these citizens are encouraging illegal hunting and creating illicit trafficking networks.
Back in the courtroom, where Li Ming and Yin Lan are waiting for the judge to arrive, the Bolivian justice system doesn’t seem to be the greatest ally for wildlife conservation. The defendants obtained a ruling in their favor that orders the cessation of their preventive detention in Palmasola jail. This means they can leave prison and fight their case at liberty.
Six months have passed since their arrest, and the trial has just begun. While the sluggish Bolivian justice system lurches forward, somewhere in the forest a bullet shoots down another terrified jaguar, fired by greedy hunters that will tear out his fangs to feed the illegal market.