Bolivia’s rich biodiversity makes it a prime target for traffickers. It stands as one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, hosting nearly half of South America’s bird species, around 350 mammal species, and 260 species of reptiles. 

Furthermore, Bolivia’s extensive, porous borders offer ample opportunities for the smuggling of wildlife, ranging from large to small creatures, including those poached from neighboring countries. 

*This article is part of a joint investigation by InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute on illegal mining, wildlife, timber, and drug trafficking in the Bolivian Amazon. Read the other chapters here, or download the full PDF.

Jaguars that roam across Bolivia’s forests are poached by the dozen every year. Their claws and fangs are harvested to feed an illicit market for big cat products in Asia, where such items fetch soaring prices. 

Between 2014 and 2021, Bolivian authorities seized at least 760 teeth from jaguars, most of them destined to China.

Meanwhile, birds captured in the wild end up in local markets for the pet trade, while others, including coveted macaws, are smuggled to neighboring countries. The eggs of Amazon River turtles are harvested by the hundreds for local consumption, posing a threat to these vulnerable species. 

Demand in Japan for live large beetles, to be kept as pets or used in staged wrestling matches, is fueling the collection of rhinoceros beetles in wet forests.

“The fact that our country is in the heart of South America has made it much easier for traffickers to extract and bring animals and their parts to the border,” said Eduardo Franco Berton, an environmental journalist based in Santa Cruz.

A Criminal Trafficking Chain in Jaguar Teeth 

Eco-traffickers have taken advantage of Bolivia’s wide range of ecosystems, from its Amazon jungle, cloud forests, and savannas to its dry forests and Andean mountains. They target many species, responding to the demands of a globalized market for exotic flora and fauna.

For Mariana Da Silva, head of research on international wildlife trafficking at the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the jaguar trade went unnoticed in Bolivia for a long time.

Traders arrived since 2014 in towns such as San Borja, Rurrenabaque, and Riberalta, all in the northeastern department of Beni, seeking jaguars and their parts.

One of the most infamous cases occurred in 2017, when local radio stations broadcast advertisements for jaguar fangs, preferably “long and clean” ones. WCS investigators had heard the call for the teeth while conducting camera trap monitoring.

“Obviously, that was not common. It was the first time something like this had happened, and it was alarming,” said Da Silva.

Jaguar killings largely occur in response to their feeding on livestock. With shotguns, ranchers hunt the felines on riverbanks and in forests near cattle farms.

Local hunters who chance upon a jaguar while stalking other animals, such as bush pigs, also kill the cats. In some cases, hunters are commissioned to poach jaguars by traders who know the high price that their parts fetch. 

Of 1,100 people living in rural areas of northwestern Bolivia, 17% said they had been approached about killing a jaguar, according to a 2021 study conducted by investigators with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Of those interviewed, many said they had killed jaguars and traded in their parts on behalf of others. 

SEE ALSO: Suriname’s Jaguar Trade: From Poaching to Paste

Beliefs about big cats in East Asian countries, especially China, have long fueled an illicit market for parts. Teeth and claws are emblems of status and power. Bones and other tiger parts, including genitals, are used in traditional medicine. 

According to a story published by the journalist Roberto Navia in the media outlet El Deber, in China, a jaguar fang can sell for as high as $2,500. A single animal’s fangs, claws, and genitals can earn a profit of $20,000.

The jaguar is listed as Appendix I by CITES, meaning trade in the species is prohibited. The IUCN NL Red List classifies the species as “near vulnerable,” with populations decreasing. Nevertheless, Bolivia sees about 61 jaguars poached per year, the most of any Latin American country, according to the 2021 CITES report.

Mariana Da Silva, of WCS, said China figures heavily in Bolivia’s jaguar trade. 

“Of all the seizures made from 2010 onwards, over 50% of all these jaguar seizures are connected to China in some way. Either they were packages intercepted on their way to China, or instances involving Chinese citizens at some point in the seizure process,” she said.

Traffickers, many of them Chinese nationals, contact hunters experienced in shooting and killing the felines. The carcasses are harvested for their fangs and claws. 

Bolivian intermediaries have been cut out of this trafficking chain to lower the risk of detection, Berton said. 

“When we traveled and were able to continue interviewing people, we realized that there was already a change in the modality … There were no longer [intermediaries], there were already Chinese citizens contacting the hunters directly,” he said.

Until recently, the smuggling of jaguar parts in Bolivia has occurred mostly through the mail. Between 2014 and 2016, 337 jaguar fangs were seized across 16 shipments sent through Bolivia’s postal service, ECOBOL, to China.

Passengers on commercial flights have also been caught smuggling significant quantities of jaguar teeth. In 2015, a Chinese businessman residing in Bolivia wasarrested at the Beijing airport in possession of 109 fangs.

Earth League International (ELI), a non-governmental organization investigating wildlife crime, has tracked jaguar smuggling networks in Bolivia. In a 2020 report, conducted with the IUCN and the Bolivian government, investigators identified some 25 people in Bolivia, and another 50 “persons of interest” outside the country, connected to the trade. The report described three criminal networks involved in the jaguar trade as “fully functioning.” 

Traffickers carry out legitimate business parallel to their involvement in the jaguar trade. They use restaurants or stores as collection centers and to launder profits. For example, in March 2022, authorities seized 16 claws in a raid on a chicken restaurant in Santa Cruz. 

Vendors of artisanal objects in local markets have been discovered offering claws and teeth for sale. Berton encountered a vendor in the Trinidad market, located in Beni, who offered to sell him a fang for $100. 

These vendors also accept custom orders. Sellers display their products on their phones and through accounts on WeChat, a Chinese messaging social networking platform, where payment and shipping arrangements can be negotiated. Top traders maintain direct connections with wholesalers based in China.

To smuggle items out of the country, traffickers bribe police and customs officials. Passengers on commercial flights transport parts concealed in their luggage or on their person. Due to the heightened scrutiny, direct routes to China are no longer used. Instead, traffickers use transit points in Brazil, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. While international shipping and the postal services are still used, the seizures of jaguar parts sent by mail has significantly declined after 2019, indicating a probable shift in smuggling tactics. 

Some conservationists have pointed to the rapid rise in the smuggling of jaguar parts from Bolivia to China as a sign that they are being used as a substitute for increasingly scarce tigers. 

Interestingly, jaguar teeth are the most commonly seized parts headed to China, indicating that the feline’s canines are filling demand from collectors. 

However, parts used in traditional Chinese medicine have not been as widely seized. For example, the smuggling of a highly prized paste made from boiling the carcass of a big cat, typically a tiger, has not been seen in Bolivia, however smuggling of jaguar pastes has occurred in Suriname, another hotspot for jaguar poaching in Latin America. 

One common factor has emerged in Latin American countries seeing large numbers of jaguars harvested: Chinese investment. 

According to a study published in 2020 in Conservation Biology, researchers found that countries in Central and South America with relatively high corruption, Chinese investment, and low income per capita had 10 to 50 times more jaguar-related seizures.

On the Hunt for Birds, Turtles, and Beetles

Locals also target birds, with the poaching being largely opportunistic, according to Berton. Parrots, parakeets, and cockatoos are the primary species captured, prized for their vibrant yellow, orange, and green plumage. Traffickers specifically target species like the yellow-headed Amazon parrot and the saffron finch due to their popularity.

Generally, the birds are captured while they are young and still in their nests. Many of them end up in local markets. In some cases, Indigenous people have been observed selling the birds directly. Indigenous communities are often enticed into capturing birds for traders. 

Amazon river turtles are frequently targeted by poachers for their eggs and meat. Two species are particularly at risk: the arrau, or giant Amazon turtle (podocnemis expansa), and the yellow-spotted river turtle, known locally as pets del rio. The yellow-spotted river turtle is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. While the arrau turtle is currently classified as lower risk, turtle specialists within the organization have advocated for its reclassification as “critically endangered.”

Both turtle species are commonly consumed by communities living along the riverbanks of departments such as Beni, Cochabamba, La Paz, Pando, and Santa Cruz. Certain Indigenous groups, such as the Tsimané Indigenous community, are allowed for cultural reasons to collect turtle eggs for their consumption. 

SEE ALSO: Poaching Grounds: Wildlife Trafficking in Peru’s Amazon

But large amounts of the eggs often wind up for sale in local markets. For example, a series of raids over four weeks in mid-2017 led to the seizure of some 50,000 eggs. Bolivian river turtles and their eggs have also been smuggled en masse into Brazil.

While most birds and turtle products are sold locally, cross-border trafficking also occurs. Berton said that parrots and cockatoo species from Bolivia are smuggled to Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru. 

As authorities have become more adept at identifying the trafficking of large parrots, or macaws, because of their size and distinctive coloring, smaller birds have also come under threat. For example, authorities seized approximately 500 saffron finches, known locally as botones de oro, at Peru’s Cabanillas de Puno customs station, near the border with Bolivia. The birds were discovered in boxes on a bus. 

“We have seen … migrants from the western part of the country transporting large quantities of birds in trucks and fleets. We are talking about numbers ranging from 100, 200, to 500 parrots and parakeets,” Berton said.

Locals in the mountainous North Yungas region have become adept in identifying and gathering two species of rhinoceros beetles, dynastes hercules and dynastes satanas. While displaying a replica of a Hercules beetle, which is black and blue with large horns the length of his hand, Berton explains that these beetles are smuggled to Japan. 

“We discovered that breeding these beetles is not illegal. There are centers and pet stores where they are bred. However, this has opened a window to an illegal market,” Berton said. 

Hunters, who collect the beetles at night, can earn between $10 to $20 per beetle from smugglers. In Japan, the price for a healthy, large specimen is as high as $500. 

Bolivia’s Environmental Ministry classifies the satanas beetle as endangered, while CITES lists it under Appendix II, meaning trade is restricted. According to beetle hunters who spoke with Berton, the live beetles are carried by bus in cardboard boxes to a collector in Peru, who is responsible for flying them to Japan. 

Hunters have also learned to collect beetle larvae, which are less likely to be detected by airport customs officials. 

Wildlife Trafficking: A Low Priority

The outfit in charge of investigating environmental crime in Bolivia, the Forestry and Environmental Protection Police (La Policía Forestal y de Protección al Medio Ambiente – POFOMA), is bare bones. Its main offices, in downtown La Paz, are in an old house whose courtyard is employed as an animal rescue center. During an interview, a police official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak said a lack of resources makes it difficult for them to do their jobs. 

They still work with physical records, according to Da Silva, who has helped create a digital database tracking eight years of seizures. “A large part of the efforts we make are to help the authorities systematize their information,” she said. 

According to Da Silva, the presence of POFOMA in departments such as Beni is highly limited. They operate with a scant number of officers and lack the vehicles necessary for mobilization. On occasion, WCS provides fuel to support joint operations with POFOMA. 

Furthermore, a restructuring of the Prosecutor’s Office in 2020 has relegated wildlife crime to a lower priority within Bolivia’s legal system. Environmental crimes were placed under the authority of the department that investigates drug trafficking and money laundering. For Da Silva, this has resulted in wildlife crimes being perceived as less critical. 

“Drug trafficking is considered a serious crime, while wildlife trafficking is seen as a minor crime,” she said.