Illegal wildlife trade—the trafficking of wild plants, animals, and the products derived from them—is a multibillion-dollar global industry. The World Wildlife Fund even ranks it as the second-biggest contributor to species loss (after habitat destruction).
This illegal trade is a huge issue facing the Amazon River region, where National Geographic Emerging Explorer Juliana Machado Ferreira and her colleagues at Freeland Brasil are helping authorities crack down on poaching and wildlife trafficking.
We caught up with Juliana to learn more about what’s fueling illegal wildlife trade and why she’s optimistic about a turnaround.
NG: Illegal wildlife trafficking is a global issue, but why is it particularly important for the Amazon basin?
JMF: Illegal wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. It’s essentially mining biodiversity.
But because it’s an illicit activity, it’s very difficult to estimate the scale of wildlife trafficking. The only estimate we have suggests that all the different types of wildlife trafficking, combined, withdraws 38 million animals—without counting fish or invertebrates—every year in Brazil alone. But this is a conservative estimate. The consumer markets for wildlife products and live animals are huge and growing worldwide.
When we consistently take from nature we disrupt a very delicate biological balance. This affects the environment and our everyday lives in ways that most people don’t think about.
What are some of the ways wildlife trafficking impacts people’s everyday lives that they might not realize?
Wildlife trafficking creates the type of ripple effects that can eventually collapse the ecosystems we rely on.
For instance, imagine that we decide to withdraw from an ecosystem beautifully singing birds to be our pets. Now imagine that these birds prey on insects. If these birds are missing from the environment, the insect population is going to explode, and could become a pest to nearby agriculture. Their predators are also going to decline because their food is gone. Now imagine that these birds disperse the seeds of the trees in this ecosystem or they’re pollinators for other plants. With the birds gone, fewer new trees and plants will grow and the entire ecosystem is compromised.
Also, imagine that we are withdrawing from the environment the biggest, strongest, most beautiful birds. That means we are removing the birds with the genetic characteristics that made them attractive in the first place. So future generations won’t have those traits. Finally, if we are taking several birds from one species, we’re leaving behind fewer birds to reproduce. In time, the offspring will be more inbred, making the entire population susceptible to disease, which could even cause species loss.
All of this can mean huge consequences for the overall ecosystem because everything is so interrelated. This ripple effect can eventually collapse the ecosystem and affect our agriculture, water supply, soil quality, and the resources we get.
What drives illegal wildlife trade?
This industry is being supported because there is a consumer market. If people are willing to buy, someone is going to be willing to harvest and then sell these wildlife products. Most people buying the products or the animals are not aware that it’s illegal. Also, many people are not aware why something is not legal or they don’t understand the scale of the problem. They say, “well I’m just buying one bird,” but they forget that it’s millions of people just buying one bird.
What are the specific challenges in dealing with wildlife trafficking in the Amazon?
Everything about the forest—its size, how difficult it is to move through, how hot and humid it is—makes law enforcement that much harder. As well as the fact that it crosses so many political borders. Nature doesn’t know political boundaries, and certainly neither do poachers. So why should we work against them using political boundaries?
Illegal logging for timber is probably the biggest challenge in the Amazon right now. There are even estimates that most timber consumed in the south of Brazil—in the big cities like São Paulo and Rio—comes from illegal sources in the Amazon.
Another challenge is biopiracy. The indigenous communities of the Amazon have incredible knowledge of how to use plants and animals for medicine and cosmetics. Industries are exploiting this knowledge to earn millions of dollars and none of it goes toward protecting the forest or makes its way back to the communities that supplied that knowledge in the first place.
What makes you optimistic about the future of the Amazon and curbing illegal wildlife trade worldwide?
I have never heard as much about wildlife trafficking in the mainstream media as I do now. Consumers are little by little becoming aware that they should be looking for some kind of certification of origin for the products they buy. We are seeing more products—especially timber—with some kind of certified origin, and it’s because consumers are starting to call for it. But we still need more of this.
Also, I think that governments are finally understanding their responsibility in addressing environmental issues. Before, if you started talking about wildlife trafficking or illegal timber, they called you a crazy tree-hugger and no one listened. But with climate change and this huge drought in São Paulo getting a lot of attention in Brazil, the government is realizing that it has to act.
I love that the world is focusing on the Amazon. All of this international attention can help keep our government honest and help us protect the forest.
Feeling Forest Loss at the Bank Deforestation isn’t just costing the plants and animals that live in it, it’s hurting Brazil’s economy. Analysis from Brazilian conservationist group Imazon finds that drought in the country’s southeast—fundamentally linked to forest loss in the Amazon—cost Brazilian farmers more than $6 billion.
Stopping Poachers in Their Tracks “Nature doesn’t know political boundaries, and certainly neither do poachers. So why should we work against them using political boundaries?”
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Amazon River region
tributaries and drainage basin of the Amazon River.
a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
commercial use of biological or genetic material without compensating the indigenous peoples or countries from which the material or relevant knowledge is obtained.
economic conditions that contribute to the success of buying and selling goods and services.
to confirm or guarantee.
particular feature of an organism.
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
to put in danger.
result or outcome of an action or situation.
purposefully moderate or low estimate.
person who uses a good or service.
to come from a specific source or origin.
period of greatly reduced precipitation.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.
ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.
group in a species made up of members that are roughly the same age.
having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
air containing a large amount of water vapor.
illegal or disapproved of.
to produce offspring with close family members.
languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods of people who are native to a specific geographic area.
activity that produces goods and services.
animal without a spine.
individuals or organizations that make sure people obey government rules.
industry engaged in cutting down trees and moving the wood to sawmills.
means of mass communication, such as television or the Internet. Singular: medium.
the children of a person or animal.
to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.
imaginary line separating one political unit, such as a country or state, from another.
animal, object, or force such as wind that transfers pollen from one plant to another, allowing seeds to develop.
animal that hunts other animals for food.
to target, victimize, or devour.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
series of consequences caused by a single action or event.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
able to be influenced to behave a certain way.
wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.
buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.
poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products.