Mexico is one of the five most biologically diverse countries on the planet and number two in terms of ecosystem diversity. What alarms conservationists is the fact that 1,336 species of the country’s fauna and 612 species of flora are being pushed toward extinction by an advancing agricultural frontier, the introduction of exotic species, disease, pollution, and wildlife trafficking. This last threat is one that especially worries authorities in Mexico.
“There is considerable illegal transport of wildlife, and according to some estimates, the amount of money involved in the activity may approach that of arms trafficking,” says Hesiquio Benítez, Director of International Relations for the National Biodiversity Commission (CONABIO).
To confront the growing problem, the Federal Attorney’s Office of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) – with the support of CONABIO and international organizations such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service – have developed a training program for officials at ports, airports, and border posts.
To date, 71 PROFEPA inspectors from 65 offices around the country have received training in exotic pest control, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ permits, and how to identify products made from endangered wildlife. According to Francisco Navarrete, PROFEPA’s Director of Wildlife Inspection, the training courses’ main achievement is that inspectors are now able to identify an array of species, including specimens in different stages of development.
It used to be easy for traffickers to pass illegal species for legal ones, such as the case of smugglers who convinced border guards that macaw chicks were baby chickens. Thanks to the training courses, officials won’t be so easily fooled. They now count on digital cameras and computer equipment so they can consult with experts in the central office when they have doubts about specific species or procedures.
“People who are in the wildlife trafficking business are like drug and arms traffickers,” says Navarrete. “They are always looking for new ways to avoid detection by the authorities.”
CONABIO officials are particularly concerned about trafficking of parakeets, which are popular pets in the United States. There is also a high demand for reptile skins, which are exported to Asia for the shoe and bag industries; cacti, which are exported to Europe for reproduction in greenhouses; tarantulas, also sold as pets; and monkeys, which are used for medical research.
According to PROFEPA data, an average of 70,000 illegal specimens and 60,000 wildlife or plant products are smuggled every year from Mexico. The principal market is the United States, which is the destination of 85% of exports, though those products are often re-exported from the United States to other countries.
Both the US and Mexican governments have signed CITES, which is the treaty that regulates international commerce in wildlife. No trade in species listed in CITES’ Appendix I is permitted under any circumstances, because they are considered to be extremely threatened, whereas trade in species listed in the other appendices is permitted with certain regulations. In the case of Mexico, for example, some species of primates, such as the howler monkey (Alouatta palliata and Alouatta pigra) and various species of reptiles like the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) are listed in Appendix I.
Benítez says that one of CONABIO’s goals as a scientific authority is to “include in the Appendices all those species whose situation is critical, and thus obtain international cooperation to ensure their conservation.” One example is a proposed inclusion in Appendix I of the lilac-crowned parrot (Amazona finchi), a species endemic to Mexico. He adds that his office also tries to remove species from the CITES Appendices when it is determined, through scientific research, that they are no longer threatened and that trade can be sustainable. For example Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreleti) has stable populations in certain parts of the country, and is reproducing at levels that permit exportation.
The country’s widespread poverty makes conservation and sustainable trade of wildlife difficult to promote, Benítez explains. “For many parts of the population, the only option they have is to sell their wildlife resources, even when most of the money goes to the middlemen,” he says.
According to Navarrete, there are large trafficking networks that pay campesinos the equivalent of 20 US cents for a bird caught in the forest, then turn around and sell that same animal for $30. There is also a problem with illegal trophy hunting.
Benítez notes, “There is an uneven relationship between the developed nations and the mega-diverse ones, such as Mexico, which are trying to conserve and establish sustainable trade in wildlife that could be an alternative for conservation.”
— Katiana Murillo
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