In Bolivia, a thriving black market trade threatens the future of the jaguar – one of the most iconic creatures in the Americas. A new study published by Cambridge University Press in the journal Oryx has uncovered a shocking reality that jaguar parts are profiting inmates in Bolivian jails.
According to the study, inmates of Mocoví prison in Trinidad, Bolivia, are participating in the illegal trade of jaguar parts, using them to produce fashion items like wallets, hats, and belts. These are subsequently sold in local markets, adding a deadly twist to the popular “made in prison” craft fair.
The chilling trade, which uses not just jaguars but also other wild animals such as boa constrictor snakes, is part of a broader, illicit economy that imperils wildlife while profiting the incarcerated. Surprisingly, this market is driven by both domestic and international demand.
The jaguar (Panthera Onca) holds a position of significant ecological and cultural importance in Bolivia. As the largest cat in the Americas, it contributes to the delicate balance of ecosystems.
In addition, the jaguar is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Bolivia, a landlocked country witnessing a fast decline in its jaguar populations. This decline is attributed to habitat loss and, increasingly, to the demand for body parts. Even though commercial trade of jaguars has been illegal since 1975 internationally and since 1986 nationally, the black market thrives.
“Our research confirms that Bolivian inmates are paid to produce jaguar wallets, hats, belts, and purses from their cells. Contrary to previous anecdotal reports, the footage provided showed no evidence of inmates being coerced into this illegal activity; instead, an inmate stated that they did so willingly to ‘earn a living for daily sustenance,'” said Dr. Neil D’Cruze, head of wildlife research at the international NGO, World Animal Protection.
These revelations come with an urgent call to action, as this illegal wildlife trade poses an acute threat to the conservation of wildlife.
“To support existing efforts to protect jaguars and other wildlife in Bolivia, there is a need for improved law enforcement and political will to take action against illegal activities. In addition, awareness must be raised on how wildlife products are being produced and the effect that such production has on the wildlife and the people involved,” said Dr. D’Cruze.
Earlier this year, videos surfaced online showing the director of Mocoví prison inviting the public to visit a craft fair held at the facility where these wildlife products were available for purchase.
The researchers have turned over all of their findings to Bolivian authorities, underscoring the urgent need for a response. As Bolivia and the world grapple with how to protect their wildlife from such devastating exploitation, the role of prisoners in this deadly trade brings into sharp focus the complex interplay of economics, crime, and conservation.
The illegal wildlife trade involves the smuggling and selling of animal products or live animals that are protected by international law. This can include a wide range of species, from plants to mammals, reptiles, birds, and more. It’s one of the largest threats to biodiversity across the globe.
There are several reasons behind this trade. For one, many species are in high demand as pets, often marketed to people who are either unaware of their protected status or unconcerned with it. Many species are also used for their medicinal properties, particularly in traditional medicines in various cultures.
Some species are hunted and sold for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in certain parts of the world. Lastly, many animals are killed for their parts (like ivory from elephants or horns from rhinoceros), which are used for ornamental or symbolic purposes.
Illegal wildlife trade has numerous negative impacts. On a biological level, it can drive species to the brink of extinction, disrupt ecosystems, and upset the balance of biodiversity. This, in turn, can affect local communities who rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods. Moreover, the illegal trade often involves brutal and inhumane treatment of the animals.
Combating the illegal wildlife trade is complex and requires cooperation at the international, national, and local levels. Strategies include strengthening law enforcement, raising public awareness, implementing tougher penalties for traffickers, and supporting the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities that may otherwise turn to wildlife trafficking.
International efforts to address this issue are spearheaded by organizations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Despite these efforts, the illegal wildlife trade remains a significant and ongoing problem worldwide.