The Long Road to Freedom: Wildlife Trade Victims in Nicaragua Get a Second Chance

Humane Society International helps country's only official rescue center return animals to the wild

Humane Society International


by Karen E. Lange

The man with the plastic mesh bag is looking for a sale. Hanging out in the well-worn dirt strip on the edge of one of Managua’s main intersections, he eyes each vehicle, searching for customers—or police. He’s surrounded by other vendors, shirts hung with multiple pairs of cheap sunglasses, wrists with plastic bags full of remotes, windshield wipers, and phone chargers. Several hold sticks on which perch little chocoyos—parakeets—with clipped wings. Whenever a driver or passenger shows a flicker of interest, the sellers move casually out into traffic—private vehicles for the wealthy few and exuberantly decorated public buses, many of them castoff yellow school buses from the United States. Now the man with the bag spots a possibility. The passengers in an SUV have been asking to see a lapa, or scarlet macaw, one of the biggest and brightest of the birds in Nicaragua’s forests, but also among the rarest and most protected—far too valuable to display by the roadside. He hustles to the car and tells the driver to go through the intersection and pull over just past a gas station.

Leaning in through the front passenger window of the parked SUV, he offers the people inside a lapa. “I can get it for you tomorrow.” But they want to see something now. So he returns with the bag. From inside he draws a red-lored Amazon: a green parrot with a band of crimson above the nose. More common and less expensive than a scarlet macaw, it still belongs to a species scientists are considering listing as threatened. The bird blinks in the sudden mid-afternoon light and flaps its wings. The man keeps a tight grip, though it’s a baby, with feathers still growing in. Born about six months earlier in the forest, in the cavity of a tree trunk, the bird was taken from the nest by a poacher who climbed or cut the tree. Then it was dosed with rum or Valium, placed in the bottom of a bag or basket, and kept quiet beneath a damp towel for the trip to Managua.

Desperate poachers are robbing Nicaragua’s forests of their diversity.

Down in the dark of the bag the man has brought over, two more pairs of eyes look up. The people in the SUV want to see these birds, too. Reluctantly (they won’t bring as much money), the man brings them out. These are orange-chinned parakeets, smaller, around 4 months old. Feeling his way toward a sale, the man makes up a story. “They’re a family. These are the babies. You can have them all for $130.”

The people in the SUV are still undecided, so the man tries once more. “I can get you as many as you need,” he says, which is true—all he has to do is go to a holding center in the capital where birds from rural areas are kept as inventory. “Just tell me what you want.”

So goes the slow, steady depletion of wildlife from Nicaragua’s forests, and from those in the rest of Central America—especially the raucous, vibrantly plumed, highly intelligent parrots. Nicaragua is the poorest nation in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with limited funds for law enforcement and limited economic opportunities to draw people away from the wildlife trade. And there’s a long tradition here of taking animals from the forests to keep as pets. Around Managua,  furtively but persistently, vendors sell the country’s wild birds and other animals. Along the highways, too, in roadside markets the government despairs of stopping, parrots and parakeets and the occasional monkey are offered as pets; bunches of iguanas, hung upside down by their tails with their mouths sewn shut so they can’t bite, are sold for meat. Traders who travel to the farming frontier, at the forest’s edge, exchange food and other goods for wildlife, then smuggle the animals to roadside sellers or back to the capital. For every bird who appears live for sale, an estimated three have died—from dehydration, suffocation, hypothermia, starvation, injury, or stress.

For every bird who appears live for sale, an estimated three have died from dehydration, suffocation, hypothermia, starvation, injury, or stress.

“I’m overwhelmed  by a growing frustration and helplessness,” says Martin Lezama-López, an ornithologist whose work on parrot populations helped get tougher laws passed in Nicaragua. “Each day it becomes clearer that there is a demand for these birds. This demand hasn’t changed in decades, despite many environmental campaigns in support of nature.”

Largely invisible within Nicaragua, a wider international trade also drains wildlife from forests such as the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in the north and the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve in the southeast. Animals are smuggled out of the country despite restrictions on wild bird imports imposed by the United States in 1992 and a European Union ban enacted in 2007, and after Nicaragua in 2005 eliminated quotas that for decades had allowed the export of limited numbers of less threatened birds, reptiles, and amphibians—up to 10,000 parrots and parakeets a year.

An untold number of animals illegally depart the country on flights, hidden in false-bottomed suitcases or lengths of PVC pipe taped to passengers’ bodies like drugs. Others trickle across Nicaragua’s borders via the Pan-American Highway into Honduras or Costa Rica. Often they end up in El Salvador, which has few forests and little wildlife left but serves as a major transshipment point for traffickers. From there, animals are sent to the United States, Europe, and Japan, where the most sought-after parrots can each bring $1,000, $2,000, or more. Andrés Gómez Palacios, deputy commissioner of the Nicaraguan police’s Division of Economic Investigations, says people from outside the country place orders and the animals are delivered to them through networks that reach the most remote communities.

“It is not only one person,” he says. “It is groups. It is many, many people.”

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