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October 23, 2012

The Long Road to Freedom, Page 3: Taking Back the Forests

Law enforcement and public education are helping to shut down the wildlife trade and return animals to nature

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • A white-fronted parrot spray-painted to look like a more valuable yellow-naped parrot is for sale on the side of a Nicaraguan highway.  Kathy Milani/The HSUS.

by Karen E. Lange

The rescue center provides a way of replenishing some of the species that have been diminished by the traffic in animals. In part because of its relatively large size, Nicaragua has a large amount of wildlife left compared to some of its neighbors, but the clearing of trees for farms—between 1990 and 2010, Nicaragua lost nearly a third of its forests—and the capture of animals for the pet trade have reduced its wildlife populations. Lezama’s study on parrots and parakeets showed a drop of 30 percent between 1999 and 2004, during a period when more than 22,000 wild birds were legally exported from Nicaragua and the country was the largest wildlife exporter in Central America. Such data are often hard to come by, and scientists have only the vaguest idea of how many birds are left in Nicaragua and the region as a whole. Parrots also tend to be slow to reproduce; they reach sexual maturity relatively late and have small numbers of young. By the time experts get the figures to support arguments for more protection, it’s verging on too late.

Yet hopeful signs are emerging that the wildlife trade can no longer be conducted so openly and perhaps is even being reduced. Once it was mainly officials from MARENA, the Nicaragua Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, who tried to stop the trade. In Managua’s Mercado Oriental, the country’s biggest market, the wildlife sellers drove them off with machetes. Since 2003, though, MARENA has been joined by the army and police and Nicaragua’s Environmental Court, says Fátima Vanegas, who started out in the 1990s as a MARENA technician and now works as regional coordinator for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Today, it’s the traffickers who are retreating.

“You can see a marked difference,” says Vanegas.

Better enforcement of environmental laws is driving sellers from some markets, but thousands of poached animals are still sold as pets.

In 2009, police raided a holding center in Managua, confiscating 80 animals. A video shows officers dressed like a U.S. SWAT team swooping down on the warehouse, where they found two scarlet macaws in a bag, a cage full of green parrots and parakeets, and another holding white-faced capuchins. The dealers spent three months in jail, a first in a country where traffickers had previously operated with impunity. Vanegas remembers the public debate:  Some people, she says, talked about how Nicaragua was a poor country and the two women had no economic alternative. They said that the government should have gone after bigger fish. Others felt the women got what they deserved (unfortunately it didn’t make them quit; one was arrested again earlier this year).

In 2011, raids finally drove out most of the illegal bird sellers from the Mercado Oriental. Those who have returned are few in number and far less bold. During a recent visit, a lone seller whisked a cage with what appeared to be a yellow-naped parrot out of sight. Further on, in the dark, covered section where animals are sold—pigeons, rabbits, and captive-bred parakeets for $5 each— another vendor quickly grabbed two of the same type out of a bunch of birds on display in a cage, pulling them to his chest, hiding the parrots. Everything else offered for sale was legal.  Empty wooden tables marked the place that was once the center of the country’s illegal trade.

“It’s been years of work,” says René Castellón, the MARENA official who’s in charge of enforcing international trade pacts. Public education has been as important as law enforcement, he says, because for most Nicaraguans a wild bird in their house is a generations-old custom, not a threat to the environment. “Tu casa no es mi casa (Your house is not my home),” says an HSI-funded government campaign to change people’s behavior.

Confiscations of illegally traded wildlife have jumped, to more than 1,200 animals a year on average, though police are constantly short of money for motorcycles, gasoline, per diems, and other expenses. In 2009, a banner year, funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior helped police confiscate nearly 2,000 animals. Most of the wildlife seized goes to the HSI-supported rescue center in Managua.

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