05/50 – Rich Pickings

Date Screened: Sunday, July 28, 2002

It is two o’clock in the morning. Police are stopping and searching vehicles entering the Brazilian capital – Brasilia. They are looking for animal traffickers.

Every year an estimated 38,000,000 birds and animals are stolen from Brazilian wildlife. They are brought to cities like these where they are sold at a vast profit.

This bus is on the final leg of a 40-hour journey from Sao Paulo in the south of the country. A strong smell is coming from its hull and police want to search its luggage. Leading the search is Dener Giovanni.

Three years ago Dener formed RENCTAS – the National Network Against the Trafficking of Wild Animals. His efforts have now lead to the creation of this, Brazil’s first environmental police force. Together they are tackling the country’s animal traffickers who form part of a global trade, Interpol say, is worth US$6 billion a year – second only to drugs.

Agents have found two bags that are leaking blood. Inside they find two rodents. RENCTAS say only half of all smuggled animals are ever intercepted by police.

Dener Giovanni – RENCTAS

This is what is happening to Brazil’s wildlife. The animals are in pieces. This, for example, was an armadillo. It was being taken into a market in the city where it is sold as an exotic meat.

It is tragic that this is going on. However, operations like the one we have carried out tonight are an important step in the right direction because we have delivered a message to hundreds of people in the cars, busses and trucks that were stopped. I am sure that all of these people will stop and think about what the image of this dead animal says about the way we treat our wildlife in this country.

A few hours later RENCTAS agents and the environmental police are on the move once again. This time they are heading to an illegal bird market on the outskirts of the city. Dealers are gathered and lined up against the wall – their birds are confiscated. National and international collectors gather at fairs like this around the country every day.

The profit on endangered species can be as high as 2,000 percent. The rarer the animal, the higher the price.

It is perhaps no surprise that Dener receives regular death threats.

Dener Giovanni
Certainly the vast majority here know that selling animals like this is illegal. However, because of the inefficiency of the Brazilian legal system nobody takes this issue very seriously, and so it continues. That’s why our biodiversity is ending. All that we’re allowed to do under Brazilian law is to escort these people to a local police station, but they’ll be out again in two hours. If we come back here next week, you’ll see them all selling once again.

To fully understand who is behind this business, we’re going undercover in the city of Salvador with a RENCTAS agent, which we shall call Ricardo. His identity cannot be revealed.

Ricardo – RENCTAS Undercover Agent
This is an extremely dangerous journey because we have to operate hand-in-hand with the traffickers – with criminals. Their only aim here is to make money.

We head to the place where slaves where originally auctioned off to wealthy plantation owners. Today it is a Mecca for tourists who come to see the masters of a craft born from slavery. But this is also the base for animal dealers who pry on tourists who step off ships and boats moored in the nearby docks.

Most smuggled animals are destined for foreign collectors.

It is here that Ricardo has met, and arranged our first meeting with the traffickers. That night they come to our hotel to meet who they think is a European buyer. We used a hidden camera to film the meeting.

Animal Trafficker
We have a Polish cargo ship that can be used to transport the animals for you. They buy a lot of animals off us. I guarantee that this week you will not be disappointed with what we can get. I can get whatever you want – monkeys, turtles, parrots, macaws, whatever.

The following morning we meet again.

Animal Trafficker
I have already got some stock in for you, but I need more time. I need to travel. But I need cash. I do not have cash. Do you understand?

They have brought us a box of baby river turtles as proof of what they can get for us, but we insist we need to see more animals before any money changes hands. They agree.

Early the next morning we are driven to a house deep inside one of the city’s biggest slums. We are hoping that this is where we will finally see what is for sale. A Juruna parrot – abroad US$2,000.00 – here US$60.00. A marmoset, an endangered species – abroad US$2,500.00 – here only US$12.00. A Caracara eagle, also endangered – abroad US$1,500.00 – here a mere US$12.00. The golden crested eagle, numbers are falling fast – abroad it would fetch US$5,000.00, but here it only costs US$40.00. This box alone contains over 250 spotted river turtles. They too are on the endangered list. The value to a collector abroad is US$1,000.00 each, but they only charge us US$4.00 each.

We arrange to pay the dealers the following morning. At dawn we escape the city.

We are leaving Salvador now and heading for a town in the interior of the state. We are going to drive past people selling animals along the side of the roadside. They sell to car and truck drivers, who in turn, take the animals to the south of the country – to cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There they will sell them at a profit. These cities are now the biggest national markets for these animals.

Along the roadside children and adults hold out their hands to us, selling everything from baby turtles to macaws.

This town is typical of this region. Regular drought means there is little farming here. Poverty is widespread. The highway that runs through the town is the lifeblood of the town.

We want to meet some of these dealers. Ricardo tries to convince a group of sellers to talk to us. Eventually the group agreed to take us to where they collect nesting birds. They insist on keeping their identities hidden from the cameras.

They have found a parakeet’s nest. They admit to us they will sell these as baby parrots to unknowing drivers. A baby parakeet is worth only US$2.00, but they can charge US$60.00 or more for a baby parrot.

Animal Dealer
We know that this is illegal, but it is the only way that we can make a living. It is better than buying a gun and going out there shooting and robbing people. If you do that you face death, so it is better to do this.

Are you worried that this will end and you will no longer be able to make a living off this.

Animal Dealer
It won’t end, because we only take the babies. They come every year because we don’t touch the parents.

Our next stop is Rio where we meet Dener for yet another police operation.

This is the market that Rio’s environmental police will be raiding. Within a few minutes we meet a dealer who offers to get us whatever we want.

Animal Dealer
I can get you a toucan for US$130.00. Yellow or red breasted macaws are US$600.00. I bring in 200 turtles at a time from Bahia. I carry them in my pockets. I put some trousers on under these and fill them with turtles.

Don’t they fall out?

Animal Dealer
No, I’ve lost count of the amount of police check points. I’ve gone through like this.

As the police swoops in on the dealers it becomes clear that something is not right. Cages that the previous day were full, are now empty. Someone has tipped them off.

Dener Giovanni
We are trying to find them, but somehow the majority of the dealers who were here got away because the police couldn’t close off the end of the road. We’re going to keep looking to see if we can find anything that might still be hidden here.

A handful of arrests are made as breeders’ paperwork is checked. This has not been a successful operation. Police procedures require the details of all detained birds to be logged, so it is a full six hours before the arrive at Rio’s zoo, but zoos like this are drastically under-funded. Reintroducing them into the wild is also too costly.

Dener Giovanni
When we finally arrived here at the zoo with the animals that we detained after today’s raids. But unfortunately the end of the story is not a happy one. Most of these birds will die because they do not come from the state of Rio de Janeiro and cannot survive in this part. Those that do survive will have to spend the rest of their lives locked up in cages.

Our next stop is the Amazon where we catch up once again with Ricardo.

Ricardo has been travelling deep into the jungle for two days. RENCTAS suspects that some indigenous tribes are catching some wild animals to order for wealthy buyers. Ricardo hopes to prove or disprove this theory.

We have come to the home of one of the tribes. We are posing as biologists. Like so many of the tribes here, this one’s numbers has fallen dramatically over the last century. There are now just over 100 left.

As the tribe gets to know us, I am allowed to wonder around and film. Throughout the village, animals like this monkey are chained to posts. This forest rodent and this spider monkey are unable to move because of their chains. This rare scarlet macaw is worth thousands to foreign collectors.

Ricardo is painted in traditional berry juices as he tries to find out who these animals are for.

The tribe depends on passing river trade to survive, but do they sell the animals?

This eagle is on the Critically Endangered List. With a wingspan of over two metres he can fetch at least US$10,000.00 in the European Union – the largest importer of caught wild birds. It is being held in a cage just over one metre in diameter.

We have so many questions that we want to ask, but we cannot stay too long without raising suspicions. But Ricardo is sure he is on to something.

A bushdog, also endangered, looks on as we go.

The only thing that we know for sure is that these animals are getting to the big cities and they come from here. Wealthy buyers are paying these communities to fish for them. They leave boxes and fish food behind, then return a few days later to collect what has been fished and take it to the big markets.

740 kilometres away is the city of Belém where the Amazon empties out in the Atlantic ocean. This is the main port for ships taking wood and other raw materials from the Amazon to the exterior. Tribes sell traditional medicines to traders here. In this part of Brazil doctors treat their patients using the plants and herbs of the jungle. Until recently they also used parts of animals and reptiles thought to contain medicinal properties. The Government has now banned this practice. However, once the cameras are turned off it is a different story.

This woman and her son offer us a number of surprising items.

Here is the female sexual organ of the endangered pink river dolphin. We also got a baby boa constrictor. We paid US$8.00 for this. This will be sold in any European pet shop for anything up to US$1,500.00.

I am now going to show you just how easy it is to smuggle an animal like this in an Brazilian airport to any destination. I am packing the snake in my luggage and I will be leaving my hotel for the airport. From here we are going to fly back to Brasilia.

Today traffickers in Brazil use a number of ways to smuggle their goods through airports and police checkpoints. Although it is yet unproven, RENCTAS are convinced that corruption in certain airlines is ensuring animals reach foreign shores. Recent high profile arrests are helping piece together the smugglers’ route.

This police video show the arrest of an Austrian-born smuggler last year. He was caught about to board a plane to Europe, carrying a large quantity of birds and snakes, including unborn parrot eggs, which he hid in his underpants. He was fined US$100.00 and released.

Meanwhile Ricardo has arrived in Brasilia with his well-travelled boa constrictor. He has not been searched once.

RENCTAS are now fully operational in Brasilia. Their work, at long last, has been recognised by the national government who have asked Dener to sign a full cooperation agreement with the Brazilian Government’s Environmental Institute.

For once our boa constrictor’s story has a happy ending and he is now safe in the hands of carers at Brasilia’s zoo. But the future for thousands of other animals is bleak. International condemnation against such a trade is all very well, but stopping it is no easy task for a country crippled by widespread poverty and foreign debt. International partners will have to step in if Brazil is to have any chance of success.

This time words are not enough.