EcoAméricas – Brazilian a leader in fight against illegal animal trade

Illegal trafficking in wildlife ranks as the world’s third largest illicit activity, trailing only drug and weapon dealing, according to the UN. Brazilian Dener Giovanini launched an initiative in 1999 to help tackle the problem, founding a non-governmental organization in his native state of Rio de Janeiro. The group soon grew beyond state borders, becoming the National Network to Combat the Traffic of Wild Animals (Renctas). Collecting data, disseminating information, organizing volunteers and working with law enforcement, Renctas is a recognized pioneer in the fight against animal trafficking, winning awards from the U.N. and the Brazilian Congress. Its success has drawn death threats for Giovanini, but he remains undeterred. His next goal is to organize a South American network. EcoAméricas correspondent Bill Hinchberger interviewed Giovanini recently in São Paulo. More information on the Brasília-based group can be found at

How did Renctas start?
I was the first environmental secretary of Três Rios, a city in the interior of Rio de Janeiro state. The federal highway patrol started bringing me cages with parrots they’d confiscated. The zoo didn’t want them because it was full. Once I drove around for two days with 40 monkeys in a cage inside my car, trying to find a place for them. Nobody wanted them. That gave me the idea. So we had an idea in our minds and no money in our pockets.
Ashoka [an Arlington, Virginia-based foundation] put money in our pockets. It gave me a three-year fellowship to create Renctas in 1999.The UN estimates the illegal trade in wildlife to be worth about [US] $20 billion a year. Brazil is responsible for about 10% of this market. We’re talking about [US] $2 billion just in Brazil. I was a little naïve, which in fact was a good thing. If I’d thought that I’d be hassling people who earn $2 billion a year, maybe I’d have given up. After the threats began, it dawned on me, but by then I was already committed.

Describe the trafficking network.
We’re in the middle of a second congressional investigation. The first concluded that an estimated 400 to 450 gangs operate in Brazil. Each has its specialty and market. There’s no centralized command. The supply chain is very segmented. It begins way out there with the poor guy who earns a few pennies to capture an animal and extends to the rich collector who pays millions of dollars for a wild animal. Middlemen transport the animals to small-time retailers in the open-air fairs and illegal storehouses. These serve as conduits for large-scale traffickers who buy huge lots of animals. They may specialize in threatened and rare species. They have the contacts with international mafias that can take an animal outside Brazil. These aren’t amateurs. Amateurs do not make $2 billion a year.

What is the market for wildlife?
With [the polling firm] IBOPE, we recently did a survey that shows 30% of Brazilians now own or have owned wild animals. That comes to 60 million people—an enormous market. People think it is normal to have a wild animal inside the home. This is a habit we’re trying to change. The fashion industry uses feathers, claws, bones, and skins. Indigenous crafts are often exported illegally. Some Indian tribes live from traditional products now made
on an industrial scale. Butterfly wings are sent to China to adorn toilet seats. Popular medicine uses animal parts: the fat of the boa constrictor for rheumatism; the vagina or penis of the dolphin to attract women; the eye of the manatee to bring good luck. We estimate 60% of the illegal trade is for domestic consumption and 40% for the international market.

How are animals smuggled abroad?
Animal traffickers are just as creative as drug traffickers. They wrap snakes around their bodies; they put them in women’s hose stockings, tie the ends together and wrap them around their waists or legs. Reptiles are often sent through the mail in boxes. Bird eggs are carried in vests. PVC tubes are commonly used; traffickers punch air holes in the plastic, drug the animal, put it inside and pack the tubes in a suitcase.

Could legal breeding and sale of wildlife help?
Legal, commercial breeding of wildlife is far from being considered a viable solution. First, because the prices for legally sold animals are very high. That restricts access to these animals to the very rich. People of more humble means will continue to buy animals on the black market. The second reason is that the Brazilian government has difficulty overseeing this activity.

What have your main victories been?
The IBOPE poll showed that while 30% of the population says it now has or has had wild animals as pets, 70% says it never would. A large majority of Brazilians know about the traffic and know it is a crime. Animal trafficking is on everyone’s agenda. The government has a campaign. The federal police created a special environmental crimes division, and its first campaign was against wildlife trafficking. NGOs are increasingly active. Private enterprise is supporting the effort.

What sorts of threats have you received?
People aimed guns at my face. Armed people have tried to invade my home. Many phone calls. One time I had to hide in an airport bathroom because I was being pursued by armed people. Sometimes you feel like giving up, but you get over it. The more threats we receive, the more we know we’re getting to them. Police officers told us the best thing to do is show your face. Don’t hide. Go on television. Get into the media. That makes it harder for the trafficker because he’ll fear repercussions.

What’s next?
We’re launching a South American network, and we’re looking for partners in Central America, too. The trafficker doesn’t respect national borders, so the battle has to cross borders. We have to create a huge network. We organized a meeting in Brasília of all the heads of all the offices of Interpol in South America and the secretary general from Leon, France, to discuss the traffic in wild animals. We want the South American network to work with Interpol.