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Professor talks about illegal animal trade

March 2, 2009

Illegal animal trade

Charles Bergman approached a man known to provide parrots on demand in the Texas border town of Brownsville. He asked if the man knew where he could get 25 of the colorful, highly intelligent birds. At first the man didn’t buy the story that Bergman, actually a PLU English professor, was a U.S. pet store owner looking for cheap parrots.“Federali?” he shot back. Bergman said no. Then pulled a fist-sized wad of cash out of pocket. The man needed no further convincing.

He pivoted, disappearing into the market crowd. Bergman wondered if he would come back.

But he did, in his car. He flipped open the lid, and there were 25 parrots, stuffed in grocery sacks. Available to anyone who would pay. Bergman, who was working for Audubon Magazine on illegal bird trafficking, also happened to be helping out the U.S. Customs agents, who confiscated the birds and arrested the man.

But as Bergman pointed out, this small sting didn’t even make a dent in the 150,000 parrots a year that come out of Mexico alone each year.

Millions of animals – not just birds – are taken from the rain forest and tropics in Central and South Americas and sold to eager buyers in the U.S. (although the trade in birds has been curtailed in the U.S. of late due to the Wild Bird Conservation Act), Europe and now in new markets in Asia and Africa. The forests are literally being strip mined of their wildlife, Bergman mused in his opening keynote speech for PLU’s World Conversations seminar last week.

“It’s a sobering and grim topic,” Bergman said. And one without easy answers.

Illegal wildlife trade ranks right behind arms and drug smuggling as the most profitable and sizeable illegal trade in the world, Bergman said.

Although laws have been passed in the U.S., Europe and in Mexico and South American countries, the trade still persists and flourishes, he said. Often it’s still legal in countries, though it may be illegal right next door. A total ban on the trade of an entire species has been suggested by wildlife advocates. But Bergman was uncertain just what an effective answer might be.

Walk down any market in Mexico, he said, and it’s not unusual to see a rainbow of feathers stuffed in small cartons or other exotic animals in cages piled 10 to 12 feet deep. Anything – from monkeys to jaguars – can be had for a price. And no one has a good fix on just how many animals are in the pipeline, Bergman said to a gathering of about 200 people last week in the University Center. One animal rescue activist in Central America simply shook her head, when asked this question by Bergman.

“It’s as large as it’s able to be,” she told him. Bureaucrats in Brazil, Ecuador or Guiana, don’t necessarily see a problem in the trade and in some countries, it’s perfectly legal, he noted. But some numbers exist. One estimate has that in Brazil alone; 38 million animals are taken from the wild every year.

Taking a canoe trip down the Amazon, Bergman said he is still stunned by the variety of wildlife, from frogs that have yet to be named, monkeys, river otters, owls and of course the parrots. During one trip in, Bergman went with a team to check out macaw nests, and found them, but decided to return later because the eggs hadn’t hatched yet. He wanted to witness an actual harvesting of the birds from the trees.

Yet, when they returned 6 weeks later, the trees were all chopped down, the chicks were gone, already stolen, an the two macaw parents were screaming overhead. Later, Bergman found out that his canoe guide had gone back and stolen, then resold the birds himself. One chick can fetch up to $150 in Brazil. It will be resold for thousands of dollars to a buyer in Europe or Asia, if the animal survives. About 75 percent do not.

And the flow of species continues into the U.S. for other less famous animals, he noted. Between 2000 and 2004, 1.1 billion fish and reptiles entered the U.S. according to customs records. No mention of the species or whether it was endangered, Bergman noted.

And there will always be a craving to own something rare.

At one market in Guiana, he found a pygmy anteater for sale.

“Who would want that?” Bergman asked the shopkeeper trying to sell it.

“Who wouldn’t?” the shopkeeper shot back.