Illegal trafficking in wildlife ranks as the world’s third largest illicit activity, trailing only drug and weapon dealing, according to the United Nations. Dener Giovani, an environmental activist since the age of 16, thought he would tackle the problem locally when in 1999 he launched a non-profit group to fight the animal trade in his native state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But the group’s influence soon grew beyond the state borders, eventually becoming the National Network to Combat the Traffic of Wild Animals (Renctas). Collecting data, disseminating information, organizing volunteers and working with law enforcement, Renctas has won awards from the U.N. and the Brazilian Congress. In another testament to Renctas’ impact, the group’s activities have drawn death threats for Giovani – who nevertheless remains undeterred.
To tourists and wildlife lovers, Giovani makes two pleas: don’t buy wild animals to keep as pets and report any suspicious activity you see while traveling. Renctas maintains an online anti-animal trafficking hotline.
We interviewed Giovani during a visit he made to São Paulo.
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.
How big is the animal-trafficking problem in Brazil?
The United Nations says that the illegal trade in animals is the third largest illicit activity in the world, trailing only arms and drugs. It estimates that 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.
What sorts of threats did you receive?
People aimed guns at my face. Armed people have tried to invade my home. Many phone calls. One time I had to hide in the bathroom of an airport because I was being pursued by people who were armed. 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. We use it as a thermometer to measure our progress. Police officers told us that 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. If you make accusations discretely, the trafficker may discover the source and eliminate the person easily. But if a trafficker kills me, I think he’ll have trouble. Who protects me is the media, the press.
Describe the makeup of the trafficking network.
A congressional investigation concluded that an estimated 400-450 gangs operate in Brazil. Each gang 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 and deliver them to small-time retailers in the open-air fairs and illegal storehouses. These serve as conduits for the large-scale traffickers who buy huge lots of animals. They may specialize in threatened and rare species. They have the contacts with the international mafias that are set up to take an animal outside of Brazil. These aren’t amateurs. Amateurs do not make $2 billion a year.
Brazilian zoologist Paulo Vanzolini says that in rural areas, a snake is worth the price of a beer.
I’ve seen Indians trade animals for liquor and river dwellers trade cages full of birds for sacks of rice. These people may have no other source of income except to sell nature. They are victims of the absence of the state, which does not provide other opportunities, and of the traffickers.
What is the market for wildlife?
Together with [the Brazilian polling firm] IBOPE, we recently completed a survey that shows 30% of Brazilians now own or have owned wild animals. That comes to 60 million people – an enormous market. Parrots, songbirds and other small birds have a guaranteed market. It is a popular market, sustained by the cage culture. 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 produced on an industrial scale. To make even a small headdress, you need to kill 50 to 60 parrots to remove their tail feathers. Butterfly wings are sent to China to adorn toilet seats. Popular medicine uses animal parts: the fat of the boa constrictor to cure rheumatism; the vagina or penis of the dolphin to attract women; the eye of the manatee to bring good luck. Animals are captured for illegal scientific research. We estimate that 60% of the illegal trade is for domestic consumption and that 40% supplies the international market, whether a live animal or dead and in parts.
How are animals sent abroad?
The animal trafficker is just as creative as the drug trafficker. People wrap snakes around their bodies: they put them inside women’s hose stockings, tie the ends together and wrap them around their wastes or legs. Reptiles, which are more resistant, are often sent through the mail in boxes. Bird eggs are carried in vests worn by the traffickers. This is a popular technique because if the police stop a suspect, he just hits his chest and destroys the proof. The police have no way to tell the difference between a broken chicken egg and a broken egg of a rare species of Macaw. PVC tubes are commonly used: traffickers punch holes in the plastic to allow air to enter, drug the animal, put it inside, and pack the tubes inside a suitcase.
And the principal markets are the United States and Europe?
Asia, too. Bangkok is known as a city for wildlife traffic. You have traffic for Japan. You have traffic for Arab countries. Arabs countries are large consumers of falcons because falconing is a popular sport among them. Animal trafficking is absolutely democratic. Every animal is interesting to somebody. You can have a scorpion or a poisonous snake that is interesting for scientific research, you have a parrot that the housewife wants, you have a non-poisonous snake that a guy in Germany or the United States wants; even here it is becoming fashionable especially among young people to have a snake inside an aquarium at home. You have the guy who wants butterflies for crafts.
All species have some use. And in each country one aspect of this is move evident. There’s no country that isn’t a consumer of illegal wildlife trafficking.
What do you consider your main victories?
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 division for environmental crimes, and its first campaign was against wildlife trafficking. NGOs are increasingly active. Private enterprise is supporting the effort.
You have agreements with the airline Varig, the bus company Itapemirim, the airport administration company Infraero, and other firms. How are those working?
Let’s take for example the case of Itapemirim. Itapemirim has about 2,000 buses that circulate in 3,600 Brazilian municipalities – more than half of Brazilian municipalities, 18,000 employees, 350 cargo trucks, 2,000 operational points in Brazil.
Our agreement with them uses their existing structure to disseminate a message about wildlife trafficking and environmental consciousness. When I first spoke with [Itapemirim executive] Andrea Cola, she said that she didn’t want to just sponsor an initiative of Renctas. She wanted to work with Renctas to build a company policy. She told me that this would take lots of work because we’d have to convince everyone from the rank-and-file to regional managers. We’re doing this with presentations and training sessions. Recently we ran a training session for 200 managers in São Paulo. We have a Renctas tape that runs on the televisions in the buses, so passengers see the video. In the onboard magazine, there’s information about animal trafficking. While waiting for the bus, the passenger sees a sign. We’ve got billboards along the roads. Employees are using Renctas buttons. In every bus, there will be a Renctas sticker. And together with the ticket, which comes in an envelope that calls on passengers to denounce trafficking, passengers receive a flyer about trafficking. Itapemirim transports nearly four million passengers a year. We also receive a monthly donation, and the company finances the production of all the material.
Since it is part of company policy, this campaign will never end. At the entrance to the company offices, there’s an iron plaque with the company policy. They changed the plaque to include the fight against trafficking in wild animals. That’s really cool.
You have veterinarians who volunteer their services, right?
We have a network of about 1,000 people registered as volunteers. They run from teachers who receive Renctas material for environmental education to biologists and veterinarians who make themselves available to take care of animals.
The forestry police don’t have veterinarians and biologists. So when they conduct a raid, they ask us to send someone. When they make apprehensions, they need someone who can identify the animals correctly by species and make recommendations about things like feeding. Many times the animals remain for days without food and water. Once a veterinarian volunteer came across snakes that the trafficker had tried to feed with a fried egg. He thought the snakes would eat fried eggs.
What would you tell foreigners who visit Brazil?
Many people think they are going to give love and care to an animal, and that it will be better off than if it were “abandoned” in the forest. We want people to understand that no love can be stronger than freedom. And the freedom I’m talking about is not the freedom to fly or to run free. It is the freedom to procreate. Because when you take an animal from the forest, you aren’t just taking that individual, but you are taking away a series of future generations that would come from that animal. You are interfering in the freedom for this animal to have a role in the food chain, in the reproductive chain.
We ask people to not buy animals and to take part in activities in defense of biodiversity. To report incidents of trafficking they see.
In Manaus, an American couple visited our exhibition in the airport. They looked around and left. The next day they brought back two little monkeys. The animals were already in the boat. They came back and returned the animals and said they were sorry.
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 too. We have to create a huge network of international cooperation. 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 together with Interpol.