The problem of illegal trafficking of wildlife is complex and implies an enormous challenge; addressing it requires joint and permanent efforts between government, civil associations, and citizens. Humanity is at a critical moment due to the loss of species; it is necessary to develop and apply integral strategies to confront this environmental problem before it is too late.
Biological diversity represents the natural wealth of our planet and constitutes a resource of great importance for the social and economic well-being of humanity and future generations. Mexico is a unique country because it is home to exceptional biological diversity, representing only 1% of the earth's surface and sheltering 10% of the world's biological diversity.
According to the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio), Mexico is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world. In terms of the number of species, it ranks second in reptiles, third in mammals, fifth in plants and amphibians, and eighth in birds. Many of these species live only in the national territory, which is why they are cataloged as endemic, being extremely valuable in terms of biodiversity.
Mexico's biodiversity is due to the interaction of several factors, including its privileged geographical position, the variety of climates, and its complex topography, which together provide an abundance of natural conditions that allow for the existence of a large number of ecosystems and species.
The value of this biodiversity lies in all the ecosystem services it provides: the recharge of water tables, the capture of carbon dioxide, climate regulation, and the maintenance of fertile soils, among others.
However, the interactions of different ecosystems with anthropogenic activities, such as agriculture, livestock, urbanization, poaching, and illegal trafficking of wild species, have caused the modification, fragmentation, and loss of natural biological systems, with a high cost in terms of biodiversity.
Among these threats, illegal wildlife trafficking has a direct and irreversible impact on ecosystems and their biodiversity. It is possible to observe this in the great decline that populations of species of high commercial value have shown in recent years. In addition, the implications of such trafficking on the social and economic framework are serious: it puts national security at risk due to its close relationship with other illegal activities, slows the growth of local communities, weakens governments, and represents serious risks to world health. However, illegal wildlife trafficking has been seen primarily as an environmental problem, so methods to combat it have had insufficient results.
In recent decades Mexico has focused its policies on promoting sustainable use schemes so that ecological benefits and socio-economic benefits do not conflict. These efforts have been reflected in the development of legal frameworks and government structures that allow for the implementation of such policies. Citizen participation plays a fundamental role in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking and denunciation represents a key mechanism for the optimal functioning of environmental policies focused on this problem.
Mexico's great natural wealth places us in a privileged position, but this also entails an enormous responsibility due to its irreplaceable character and significant vulnerability. Without a doubt, the problem of illegal trafficking of wild flora and fauna is complex and represents an enormous challenge. Meeting this challenge will effectively require joint efforts between government, civil associations, and citizens. Humanity is at a critical moment, in which developing comprehensive and effective strategies to address environmental issues is of vital importance, otherwise, it may soon be too late.
What is illegal wildlife trafficking?
The illegal traffic of wildlife is constituted as an infraction or crime in the environmental legislation of Mexico and involves the extraction, gathering, transport, commercialization, and possession of species of flora and/or wild fauna, using capture, hunting, and collection, in contravention of national and international laws and treaties. It includes live specimens, as well as products and subproducts derived from them, considering products to the unprocessed parts and subproducts to those that have suffered some process of transformation.
Defining the precise extent of illegal wildlife trafficking is impossible due to its illicit nature, however, it is known that it is a large business involving large amounts of money. It is estimated to be the fourth largest illegal trade, after drug trafficking, human trafficking, and counterfeit products. It also ranks second worldwide as a threat to wildlife, after the destruction and fragmentation of natural habitats.
In recent years, illegal wildlife trafficking has increased significantly, despite government efforts, probably as a result of the fact that it represents an attractive illicit business due to the availability of large profits and the low-risk nature of the crime.
This illegal trade is based on an organized trafficking network, where there are different levels of action and different members, each of which carries out specific activities that together form a whole chain. This specialization or division of labor includes the extraction of wildlife specimens from their natural environment, the collection, transport, and distribution of these specimens, and finally their sale.
In recent years the participation of organized crime in this chain has increased significantly, representing profits that subsidize other illegal activities and becoming a complex problem that requires urgent action.
Mexico plays a transcendent role in the extraction and illegal trade of wildlife due, firstly, to the fact that it is one of the nations with the greatest biodiversity on the planet and, secondly, to its geographical location and easy communication with various countries. Among these countries, the United States, Canada, Guatemala, and Belize stand out in the Americas; while in Europe, Spain and Germany are considered relevant importers and exporters of wild plants and animals. As for the demand, the Asian market generates most of it, being China the most important consumer.
Most illegally traded species in Mexico
Among the fauna species, the yellow-headed parakeet (Amazona oratrix), the red macaw (Ara macao), the green macaw (Ara militaris), the yellow-breasted toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), the spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) stand out, the howler monkey (Aulluata palliata), the red knee tarantula (Brachypelma smithi), the black iguana (Ctenosaura pectinata), the green iguana (Iguana iguana), the rattlesnake (Crotalus sp. ) and the Harris' falcon (Parabuteo unicinctus). And in the case of flora, species of cactus of the genus Mammilaria, species of palms of the genus Chamaedora, as well as a large number of species of the orchid family.
Causes of illegal wildlife trade
The main factor that triggers illegal wildlife trafficking is market demand, which in turn is promoted by consumer groups driven by different deep-seated social and cultural values. The primary driver of this demand is the social status associated with the trafficked products, followed by the medicinal value attributed to many wildlife products.
Opportunistic buying motivated by the desire to own exotic pets, hunting trophies, and rare plants and animals, as well as the acquisition of by-products in the form of handicrafts and jewelry, are examples of demand-driven by associated social status.
On the other hand, the demand for parts or derivatives of wild flora and fauna, used in both traditional medicine and herbalism, is associated with the perceived healing value of such products, even though their medicinal effectiveness lacks scientific support, in addition to presenting potential risks to the health of those who use them.
In Mexico, cultural factors have also played a fundamental role in the demand for wildlife, which is strongly rooted, so they have become habits and customs that are difficult to change. Such is the case of the use of rattlesnake meat and skunk meat in traditional medicine practices. This has strong implications for the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking, as it makes it a much more complex problem.
Likewise, market supply, which is responsible for meeting demand, is driven by economic values, where profit is the main motivation for hunters, collectors, gatherers, and smugglers. In recent years this has played a crucial role because as poverty and the lack of income-generating alternatives have increased, an increase in illegal wildlife trafficking has also been observed.
In addition, this market supply is strongly favored by the low risk associated with this illegal activity. The fact that such illegal trafficking has historically been considered a merely environmental problem has resulted in very low deterrents to prevent wildlife crime.
The case of the Totoaba
The demand for parts and derivatives of wild flora and fauna to be used for traditional medicine or food consumption does not come exclusively from the national territory, but also international markets. An example of this is the demand from Asian markets for many of these products, several of which come from Mexico.
Such is the case of the Totoaba bladder (Totoaba macdonaldi), a species of fish endemic to the Gulf of California, which reaches high prices in Asian markets due to its medicinal and culinary value. Over-exploitation and growing demand for Totoaba bladder have caused the species to be listed under the category of Endangered in the NOM059-SEMARNAT-2010 and Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The impacts of this excessive looting in Mexico have had strong repercussions in the Gulf of California, where seizures and arrests associated with the illegal capture of Totoaba have become an everyday occurrence. Efforts to conserve this natural resource have resulted in a permanent ban on the capture of Totoaba in marine waters under federal jurisdiction. However, the protection of this and other wildlife species will depend, to a large extent, on international cooperation to curb the strong demand for these products.
Consequences of illegal wildlife trafficking
Illegal wildlife trafficking takes a heavy toll on ecosystems and their species. The negative consequences can be seen at different levels.
At the organism level
The first level in which the strong and cruel consequences of the illegal traffic of wildlife are evident is in the organisms themselves, which are victims of this trade and are subjected to terrible conditions during capture, transport, and sale. This results in injuries, disease transmission, and even high mortality. Each process involved in illegal trafficking compromises the well-being of the organisms that are part of this chain, causing them great suffering.
The case of illegal trafficking of wild parakeets
By the law, no bird belonging to the Psittacidae family, whose natural distribution is in the national territory, may be subject to extraction. Nevertheless, Psittacidae in Mexico is one of the groups most affected by illegal trafficking, which is reflected in their high mortality rate. 77% of captured parakeets die during capture, collection, transport, distribution, and sale before reaching the consumer, and it is estimated that between 50 and 60 thousand parakeets die annually.
This is associated with the harmful conditions of capture, collection, transport, and distribution to which they are subjected. Such a high percentage of mortality also has strong implications for the 22 species of Mexican Psittacine, of which 11 are already in danger of extinction as a result of the constant pressure to which they are subject due to their high demand. The decrease in demand for these species is the main solution to the problem of illegal trafficking of psittacines in Mexico and the most important factor for the conservation of this national treasure.
At the species level
The extraction of wildlife from its natural habitat has caused many Mexican species to become threatened, endangered, or even extinct. Illegal trafficking tends to destabilize wildlife populations because the extraction of young specimens prevails. This causes strong pressure on younger generations, decreasing the rate of reproduction of the entire species.
Another consequence of illegal trafficking that affects the reproductive rate of a species is the proportion of females/males extracted, which can strongly increase the reproductive fragility of the entire species. All these factors have significantly affected entire populations of Mexican flora and fauna, making the list of species in danger of extinction grow more and more.
The case of the Jaguar
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the largest cat in the Americas. Historically it was distributed from the south of the United States to the center of Argentina, however, its populations have decreased considerably. The jaguar is included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1998).
In Mexico, there has been an indefinite ban on its use since 1986, and it is considered to be in danger of extinction. The main threat to which it is subject, besides the destruction and fragmentation of its habitat, is the illegal exploitation for the use of its skin, which represents the first cause of mortality of the species in our country. Poaching is a severe problem for the maintenance of jaguar populations in the long term due to the strong pressure it represents. The jaguar is already declared extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador. It is the poaching in the country that puts it at risk of being in the same situation in a short time.
In addition, the jaguar is considered an umbrella species, since its conservation requires the protection of large extensions of habitat, which incidentally benefits many other species with lesser spatial requirements. Only by putting a stop to the illegal animal fur industry, which is based on illegal trafficking of wildlife, will it be possible to give this majestic species another chance, which will have advantages in the conservation of other species at risk.
At the ecosystem level
Ecosystems are functional structures dependent on various factors and their complexity is reflected in their fragility. Threats to Mexican ecosystems represent a direct danger to their biodiversity, since removing an actor from this complex system generates instability within it.
The main consequence of illegal trafficking on these ecosystems is deforestation, that is, the massive extraction of wild fauna. This generates empty ecosystems, apparently healthy, but which do not have a faunistic component that performs the ecological functions necessary for their maintenance. This situation also occurs in the seas due to the illegal overexploitation of marine resources. Defaunation has the potential to trigger a series of cascading effects that can be reflected, as a final consequence, in the loss of biodiversity, giving rise to simplified and impoverished ecological systems.
The ecological consequences of illegal wildlife trafficking are not concentrated exclusively on those resulting from the unregulated extraction of species from a given ecosystem. Exotic or introduced species also represent a strong threat to Mexican ecosystems because of their potential to become invasive or harmful species.
Their ability to become an invasive species lies mainly in the fact that they have no natural predators due to their exotic nature, which causes them to reproduce out of control. This excessive growth has devastating effects on the populations of native or indigenous fauna and flora.
On the other hand, the native genetic identity is put in danger with the introduction of allochthonous wildlife (not native to the place where it is found) due to the hybridization that can occur. Lines of genetic evolution that have taken thousands of years to develop and acquire characteristics of their own can be eliminated in the course of a few generations.
The case of the Lacandon Jungle
The Lacandon Jungle, located in the east of Chiapas, is the center of the highest biodiversity in the tropics, not only in Mexico but also in North America. One hectare of Chiapas' jungle can host 160 species of vascular plants and up to 7 thousand trees; and in a single tree, there can be 70 different species of orchids, hundreds of species of beetles, ants, and other insects.
An important part of this ecosystem is currently protected by the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, however, the rest is subject to strong pressures within which is the deforestation caused by illegal trafficking of wildlife. It is estimated that in the Selva Lacandona alone, 100,000 wild animals are extracted each year.
Some of the species that suffer strongly from this illegal trafficking in the area are the black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra), the spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), the margay (Felis wieddii), the ocelot (Felis pardalis), the puma (Felis concolor) and the jaguar (Panthera onca), as well as the scarlet macaw (Ara macao). All provide the ecosystem with different important environmental services without which it will eventually deteriorate. Both the spider and howler monkeys and the scarlet macaws naturally disperse seeds of numerous plants that require them for the colonization of new spaces. For their part, the felines control the population of herbivores; without them, the vegetation would suffer the constant and excessive pressure of large populations of herbivores.
Defaunation and, therefore, illegal trafficking of wildlife, strongly threatens one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world. Only by stopping the chain of this traffic, with the help of social participation, can the conservation efforts that are being made today in the area to restore the balance of this ecosystem bear fruit.
In addition to the environmental consequences of illegal wildlife trafficking, there are also strong social repercussions, which are often overlooked despite the profound implications for society.
Illegal wildlife trafficking compromises national and international security because of its illicit nature, which has directly associated it with other sectors of organized crime, primarily money laundering and drug trafficking. This growing linkage generates new and greater difficulties for the fight against illegal trafficking of wildlife because of the violence that these other illegal activities entail.
Another of the social implications linked to this illicit commercialization is the impoverishment in terms of social and economic development, as well as the weakening of government power and law enforcement. This translates into increasing levels of corruption and the loosening of borders.
All of these factors are expressed in a strong social decomposition, reflected in the disarticulation of values such as solidarity, respect and dignity for people, authority, the normative framework of the rule of law, and institutions.
Risks to human health
Unfortunately, the demand for wildlife continues to be a strong driver of illegal trafficking, despite all the risks and disadvantages involved in owning specimens of this nature. Among the most important risks are those associated with human health, whether in the form of disease or aggressive behavior. While the most notorious disadvantage is the great economic expense of maintaining a wildlife animal in captivity.
There are more than 150 human diseases that originate from animals. 60% of all human pathogens have an animal origin, and more than 70% of all contagious diseases of animal origin come from wild animals. The spread of these diseases, from a wild animal carrier to a human, can be given by bites, scratches, contact with saliva or mucus excretions, contact with urine or feces, and contact with blood fluids.
Some of the diseases that animals transmit to people can cause death, such as H5N1 avian influenza or rabies. Others show symptoms of common diseases and when not correctly diagnosed can cause serious damage and even death, such is the case of leptospirosis, transmitted mainly by small carnivorous mammals, and psittacosis, transmitted by parrots, turkeys, and pigeons.
Another risk of having a wild animal in captivity is associated with physical and behavioral changes that occur as young animals reach maturity. Many species involved in the illegal trafficking of wildlife become aggressive when they reach sexual maturity and become a danger to their owners.
Also, the chronic stress to which many captive and poorly managed wildlife are subjected can result in behavioral responses and changes in behavior that may include increased aggression and antisocial tendencies.
This behavior varies depending on the nature of the species. In the case of birds, the beak is often used as a defense and the claws can cause extensive injuries. Mammal bites, specifically from cats and primates, can cause injuries that put human life at serious risk. Snake bites, even those not classified as poisonous, are very painful and sometimes difficult to get rid of. Finally, larger reptiles, such as alligators and crocodiles, are capable of inflicting very serious injuries.
If injuries caused by a wildlife animal can put our lives at risk, then it is recommended that only trained personnel come into contact with this type of fauna. Owners of captive wildlife will be continually exposed to this kind of threat.
On the other hand, one of the biggest disadvantages of owning wildlife in captivity is the high cost of proper care and maintenance. In the case of food, it is practically impossible to adequately supply its needs because in wild conditions its intake varies in quantity and origin according to the time of year, as well as the reproductive cycle.
Furthermore, they require specialized veterinary medical assistance, which is difficult to find and also very expensive. All these factors contribute to diminishing the quality of life of the specimens in captivity, increasing their mortality.
Regulatory mechanisms against illegal trafficking of wildlife in Mexico
Recognizing the problems affecting wildlife in the country, including illegal trafficking, Mexico's legal framework has been expanded in environmental matters with regulations, standards, international agreements, national plans, and government provisions, which promote the protection and sustainable use of natural resources.
The General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA), published in 1988, defines the framework for the management, use, and sustainable exploitation of wild fauna and flora in Mexico. In a complementary manner, the General Law of Wildlife directly addresses the issue of wildlife, regulating aspects of its conservation and sustainable use.
In Mexico, 2,606 species of wild plants and animals at risk of extinction have been identified. The NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010 lists the species that are Probably Extinct in the Wild, Endangered, Threatened, and Subject to Special Protection.
Mexico has also adhered to various international agreements and conventions related to the conservation and use of wildlife, which for implementation purposes are considered, in legal matters, at the same level of the hierarchy as the laws published by the Congress of the Union.
The most relevant international agreement on illegal trafficking of wildlife is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, signed in 1975 and joined by Mexico in 1991.
The purpose of this Convention is to regulate the international trade of endangered species of flora and fauna, so it doesn't constitute a threat to their survival.
The operation of CITES is based on a system of granting authorizations and licenses necessary for the import, export, and introduction of specimens of any of the 30 thousand species of wildlife regulated by the agreement. In Mexico, the administrative authority designated to manage this system of granting permits and authorizations is the General Directorate of Wildlife (DGVS), of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). While the scientific authority commissioned to provide advice on the effects of trade on the status of wildlife species is Conabio.
Finally, the authority responsible for the enforcement of the legal framework on environmental matters, including the application of the law established by CITES, is the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa).
The Federal Attorney's Office for Environmental Protection
Profepa is the administrative body responsible for monitoring compliance with legal provisions applicable to the preservation and protection of wildlife. Among its attributions are to watch over the fulfillment of such legal dispositions, to safeguard the interests of the population in environmental matters by enforcing environmental legislation, and to sanction individuals and companies that violate such legal precepts, among others. Likewise, it receives, attends, and investigates citizen complaints on environmental matters.
Through its 32 Delegations in the interior of the country, it monitors compliance with the legal framework on environmental matters through the implementation of two strategic lines of action:
Verification of compliance with environmental legislation applicable to the management and use of wildlife in Wildlife Conservation Management Units (UMAs), properties or facilities that manage wildlife in a confined manner outside their natural habitats (PIMVS) such as circuses, zoos, nurseries, and nurseries, as well as wildlife sales and collection centers.
Combating illegal activities related to wildlife, specifically illegal trafficking, which includes inspection and surveillance actions in each link of the chain.
Given the evolution of the modes of operation of illegal wildlife traffickers, Profepa implements actions ranging from institutional cooperation, strengthening and generating technical and operational capabilities, and constant equipment to the inspectorate, to the use of investigative and intelligence resources to prosecute and punish those who commit infractions and crimes against wildlife.
The contravention of the legislation and regulations on wildlife is sanctioned, in an independent and non-inclusive manner, by the provisions of the LGEEPA, the General Wildlife Law and its Regulations, as well as the Federal Criminal Code.
The sanctions that may be applied are the following: written warning; temporary, partial, or total suspension of the corresponding authorizations, licenses, or permits; revocation of the corresponding authorizations, licenses, or permits; temporary or permanent, partial or total closure of the facilities or sites where the activities that give rise to the respective infraction are carried out; administrative arrest for up to 36 hours; confiscation of the specimens, products and/or sub-products of the wildlife; fines of 20 to 50 thousand minimum wages, as well as other instruments directly related to infractions of the General Wildlife Law and its Regulations. Violators may also be sentenced to cover the costs related to the deposit of specimens or goods that may have been incurred due to an administrative procedure.
The Federal Criminal Code provides that anyone who illegally captures, damages, or deprives of life a specimen of a turtle or marine mammal, or collects or stores in any way its products or subproducts, or carries out hunting, fishing, or capture activities with a non-permitted means, or carries out activities for trafficking in wild flora or fauna species, whether terrestrial or aquatic, that are considered to be in a risk category or that is regulated by an international treaty to which Mexico is a party, will be sentenced to one to nine years in prison and the equivalent of 300 to 3 thousand days of fines.
Likewise, an additional penalty of up to three years or more in prison and up to one thousand days of an additional fine is applied when the above-described conducts are carried out in or affect a natural protected area, when they are carried out for commercial purposes or when there is recidivism of the crime.
The case of Charco Cercado
The case of Charco Cercado, San Luis Potosi, stands out as an institutional achievement since for more than 40 years it was identified as one of the main places of extraction and illegal trade of wildlife. There, live and dead specimens of rattlesnakes, birds of prey, songbirds and ornamental birds, some felines, as well as cactus, stool, and palms were traded.
During the years 2009 to 2012, Profepa carried out various inspection actions against the main traffickers operating in the area, which were made available to the MPF and consigned by the PGR to the corresponding judicial authority.
Likewise, all of the posts installed on the side of the road, where live specimens, parts, and derivatives of wild flora and fauna were illegally traded, were dismantled. In this way, the problem was eradicated and Profepa now maintains a permanent presence in the area, with continuous patrols that inhibit any attempt to reactivate this illegal trade.
Mechanisms for citizen participation
The illegal trafficking of wildlife responds directly to the market demand generated by citizens, the last link in that chain, so not being a consumer of wildlife is one of the most effective ways to end this type of practice.
Citizen participation not only lies in not being part of this chain but also in exercising one of the most important participation mechanisms: reporting to Profepa.
The formulation of complaints can be done by different means:
By calling the Profepa telephone number from anywhere in the Republic, free of charge, at 01-800-770-33-72.
By e-mail to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Through the website www.profepa.gob.mx, by filling out the Internet Complaint Form.
By going to the Environmental Complaint Attention Module, located in Profepa's central offices, on Carretera Picacho-Ajusco 200, 5th floor, North Wing, Colonia Jardines de la Montaña, Delegación Tlalpan, C.P. 14210, México, D.F.
In the states, in the offices of the Profepa Delegation.
Once the complaint is analyzed and qualified, it is registered in the System of Attention to the Popular Complaint and later an investigation of the denounced facts is carried out. Within 10 working days from the date of receipt of the complaint, the complainant is notified of the procedure that was given to the complaint.
The illegal trafficking of wildlife is a complex problem that puts at risk not only the flora and fauna of the country and the world but also national and international security, as well as social and economic development.
Influenced by diverse cultural, social, and economic factors, the eradication of this activity represents a challenge for Mexico. Recognizing its environmental, social, and economic repercussions is the first step in the fight against its eradication since its nature demands a systemic and integral approach.
Success in combating this illicit activity will not only depend on awareness and recognition of the factors involved. The large scale it has reached in recent years requires cooperation and collaboration efforts, nationally and internationally, among the various government bodies, non-governmental organizations, and necessarily civil society.
It is crucial to understand and value the scope of the actions that the latter can carry out from two fronts: the decrease in the demand for wildlife since it is the engine that drives the supply, and the citizen's denunciation, which plays a transcendental role in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.
In Mexico, it is a privilege to possess immense natural wealth, but also a responsibility to conserve it. The success of a national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking will depend to a great extent on joint efforts and actions.
Research and text: Lucía Nadal Urías, Antero Carmona Omana and Melissa Trouyet Starr