Caribbean Against Wildlife Smuggling

St. Vincent Parrots, endemic to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in flight. (Photo courtesy of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority)

(Scott Johnson; 5 March, 2017)

Scott Johnson, Science Officer with the Bahamas National Trust, shares the work that he and his fellow conservationists are doing to help raise awareness about the issue of wildlife smuggling.

As a Caribbean native, I can wholeheartedly understand people’s obsession with our region. The lush green vegetation, white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, delicious food, and warm tropical climate are all hallmarks of the Caribbean experience. Every year many people, aka “snowbirds” flock to this region by the millions for a welcome respite from the frozen north.

In addition to “sun, sea and sand,” visitors also enjoy the Caribbean’s abundant wildlife, including the chance to spot spectacular native birds like parrots, trogons and todies, swim with sharks and rays, snorkel on a tropical reef, interact with rock iguanas, and even watch sea turtles laying their eggs in a nest they dig right on the beach. Unfortunately, some people want to do more than just observe the wildlife—they want to take a souvenir home, purchasing wildlife products for fashion, pets, and novel foods. This is causing a serious threat to the long-term survival of many native species.

The Caribbean is a virtual treasure trove of biological diversity. In fact, it is one of the most important biological hotspots in the world, home to thousands of endemic plants and animals. For example, 172 species of birds are Caribbean endemics, found no place else on earth. Many of these species are found on only one or two islands in the entire region. The novelty of these species unfortunately makes them key targets for smugglers.

Wildlife smuggling is one of the largest illegal activities in the world, a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands of animals and animal products are smuggled to places like Asia, the US and other countries to satisfy people’s insatiable appetites for the new and exotic. In Trinidad and Tobago, birds like the Chestnut-bellied Seed Finch and Blue-and-Yellow Macaw are key species targeted by smugglers. In 2011, 74 eggs from both Black-billed Parrots and Yellow-billed Parrots were smuggled out of Jamaica into Austria in rum cake boxes by tourists visiting Jamaica. On the island of Hispaniola, Hispaniolan Parrots have been captured and sold in the wildlife trade and are illegally kept as pets, while a single St. Vincent Parrot is said to be worth $100,000 on the black market.

What’s being done to help curb this threat in the Caribbean?

Law enforcement is an extremely important tool in the battle against wildlife smuggling. Sadly, protection of native wildlife from illegal capture and smuggling has not been a major priority for many Caribbean countries. In addition, many enforcers do not have a well-rounded knowledge about their native species. This is where wildlife sensitization comes in.  For the past two years……….

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