China’s Presence in Peru’s Amazon Wildlife Trade: Villain or Victim?

“The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies except airplanes.” True or not, that is the commonly held perception of Chinese around the world. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, China is one of the major consumers of wildlife products. From elephant ivory to shark fin, pangolin scale to tiger bone, China’s demand for wild animals is driving the global illegal wildlife trade, which is the third largest illegal economic activity after the trafficking of drugs and weapons. [1]

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A dismembered jaguar found in a freezer in Brazil in 2016 (Photo credit: Earth Journalism)

 Along with the global expansion of Chinese communities, challenges regarding wildlife trade emerge. Between 2013 to 2016, 380 jaguar canines were seized in Bolivia, which correlated to 95 jaguars killed. These jaguar canines were acquired and traded illegally by Chinese nationals. [2] According to the authorities, jaguar fangs can be valued as high as cocaine in Asia, at approximately $1,200 for a single tooth. It is reported that similar situations occur around different countries in the Amazon Basin rainforests.

Among the Amazon region, Peru has the biggest Chinese population.

Chinese immigrants have settled in Peru for 170 years. When they first came here, their roles were indentured servants who collected guano.[3] Until now, there are over one million Chinese people living in Peru, which makes up about 5 percent of the Peruvian population.[4]

Based on investigations, Chinese communities in Peru are linked with concerns towards wildlife trade.

Huang is a Chinese restaurant owner who has lived in Iquitos, the center of the Peruvian Amazon area, for over twenty years. His grandfather first came to Peru in around 1930s as a railway constructor and collector of bird feces. “Wild animals like boa, armadillo, alligator, and catamount are everywhere in the jungle. The prices here are much lower than China,” Huang said “I am already sick of eating them. However, many Chinese tour groups like to come here and try these exotic cuisines. Whenever I receive reservations from Chinese tourists for a wild meat meal, I will plan ahead and ask the local people to get those animals for me from the jungle.”

Liu, another staff in the restaurant, said “It is very common here and almost every Chinese I know in Iquitos eats wild meat. I eat it once a week.”

Trade in jaguar canines exists in Peru just like in Bolivia.

“I collected jaguar teeth from the indigenous people and sold them to Chinese buyers,” a person who has requested anonymity told us. “I only collect those high-quality jaguar teeth. I buy them at the price of 500 soles a pair and sell them for 6,000 dollars.” According to expert, the amount of jaguar teeth bought by the Chinese every year is roughly equal to sixty or seventy jaguars. “There were still a limited number of jaguars living near Nanay River before the bulk purchase of jaguar teeth. But now they are all gone,” said a local Peruvian.

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Pygmy marmosets are sold to China as exotic pets (Photo credit: Shanghailist)

Live animals are also popular merchandise for Chinese smugglers. According to investigations, some Chinese traders buy living animals from locals and then export them to China for the growing demand from zoos and personal collectors. Some traffickers will export animals to zoos that provide them fake certificates proving the animals were born in captivity. [5] “The price of illegally smuggled animals is cheaper than legally imported animals,” said by an anonymous expert. Besides, Chinese people in their 20s and 30s have shown a growing interest in buying illegal wild animals as their exotic pets to stand out and show off to their friends. [6]

However, it is also important to note that not all Chinese support illegal wildlife trade.

Some Chinese refuse to consume wildlife meat despite its availability. “I am scared of eating any wild meat, and I will even get nightmares about eating it,” Jin, another Chinese restaurant owner in Lima Chinatown, said. She is a devoted believer of Buddhism and killing lives is against her religion. When asked if she cooks any wildlife dishes in her restaurant, she shook her head strongly and said no.

Some Chinese do not see any value in jaguar teeth. Zhang, a shop owner in Lima, believes that jaguar teeth are like any other animals’ teeth. “They are just worthless, and I do not understand why people are doing this illegal, cruel trade.”

Chinese wildlife traders can be operating legally as well. Yu, a legal wild animals trader who has been in Peru for three years, said: “I love animals, and they have accompanied me throughout my entire life. This is the main reason that I came here and started this business.” Yu chatted with us while we were having Chinese tea in his office with his pet, an energetic ocelot born in captivity.

Yu started his legal wildlife trade in 2015 by trading tropical fish. “I was traveling down in the Amazon rainforest and had a selfie with a type of local tropical fish. My friends in China saw the picture and asked me if I can export the local fish back. That’s how I started my business.”

Yu’s company now trades around 150 species of Amazonian wild animals. Many of their wild animal sources came from illegal trading that were seized by the government and no longer had the ability to survive in the wild. He also receives injured wild animals, and he will keep or release them depending on the animals’ conditions.

Yu’s customers come from the zoos and animal farms in China through legal certificates and documentation. His company occupies 50 percent of the South American wild animal trading market share in China. Yu is one of the few legal wild animal traders, but his real competitors are not other legal wild animal traders.

As a legal wildlife trader, he hates the illegal wildlife traders as much as others.

“Those smugglers are way too bold. Many buyers in China even think legal animal traders, like us, are liars. If they buy animals from a smuggler, the animal will be handed to them within a month or even within a few days because smuggled animals do not need any paperwork or custom permission, which means tons of government certifications and animals health quarantines. For us, it takes at least 6 months.”

He actively acts against the illegal traders.

“Last year I found out that a smuggler was using my company’s name to do illegal animal trade in China. We had all his information and called the Chinese police but nothing happened.”

In Yu’s view, strong law enforcement on legal wildlife trade is helpful for fighting against the illegal ones.

“It is a complex industry,” Yu said. ”Yet the world only sees it in black and white.”

Authors: Wei Yu, Chen Jun, and Tang Guangkai

[1] Yury Fedotov and John E Scanlon. “Wildlife Crime Ranks among Trafficking in Drugs, Arms and Humans.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Sept. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/26/wildlife-crime-trafficking-drugs-arms.

[2] Navia, Roberto. “Fang Trafficking to China Is Putting Bolivia’s Jaguars in Jeopardy.” Conservation News, Conservation News, 30 Jan. 2018, news.mongabay.com/2018/01/fang-trafficking-to-china-is-putting-bolivias-jaguars-in-jeopardy/.

[3] Justina, Hwang. “Chinese in Peru in the 19th Century.” Modern Latin America, Center for Latin America and Caribbean Studies, library.brown.edu/create/modernlatinamerica/chapters/chapter-6-the-andes/moments-in-andean-history/chinese-peru/#_ftn1.

[4] Hwang, Emily. “Chinatown in Peru? A Brief Look of the Chinese Diaspora in Latin America.” Panoramas, 19 Jan. 2017, http://www.panoramas.pitt.edu/health-and-society/chinatown-peru-brief-look-chinese-diaspora-latin-america.

[5] LA PAZ. Kuwait Times. “Bolivia’s jaguars facing threat from Chinese fang craze.” 07/04/2018

[6] Nuwer, Rachel. “The Key to Stopping the Illegal Wildlife Trade: China.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/science/wildlife-trafficking-china.html.

 

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2 thoughts on “China’s Presence in Peru’s Amazon Wildlife Trade: Villain or Victim?

  1. This is a really good article. I recently wrote a similar one on the illegal pet trade, but your focus on the Chinese market gives a different perspective. Out of curiosity, is there a price difference between the illegal and legally traded animals? I wonder if perhaps illegally trafficking animals cost less (less paperwork, housing requirements etc) and therefore as well as being able to obtain these animals faster, it is also cheaper? It’s such a complex issue and requires engagement from all levels.

    Like

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