China’s Demand for Jaguar Fangs
Jaguar poaching and trafficking are by no means news, however, a recent rise in illegal trafficking is putting jaguars at the forefront of conservation issues. Historically, jaguars have been poached to supply different industries. During the 1960s, the jaguar skin trade drastically increased due to international demand generated by the fashion industry. During that time, around 15,000 jaguars and 80,000 ocelots were killed every year in Brazil. Poaching numbers eventually dropped with the listing of jaguars in 1975 in CITES Appendix I, banning all international trade of jaguar products for commercial purposes. Today, demand for jaguar parts has drastically changed from what it was in the ’60s. Whereas trade in jaguars at that time focused on shipping skins to Europe, today illegal trade centers on fangs — most of which go to China.
The international trade in jaguar fangs sent from South American countries to China is a direct result of strict measures taken by the Chinese government against tiger poaching. For over a century, tigers have been poached for their fangs and bones to be used in traditional medicine as a claimed cure for chronic pains and diseases and to ward off evil. What was a lucrative business for Chinese poachers for hundreds of years has recently been destabilized due to decreasing tiger populations, as well as stricter anti-poaching regulations and the naming of the jaguar as “American tiger”. Nevertheless, Chinese demand for tiger parts for souvenirs, such as claws and fangs, persists. As a result, China’s lust for tiger parts seems to have found the perfect substitute: jaguars.
Today, about 90% of the jaguar population is found in the Amazon rainforest. The Pantanal region in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay has one of the highest densities of jaguars in the world — an estimated 5,000 jaguars roam within these borders. Although these numbers are high, it is important to acknowledge that many of the healthy and stable jaguar populations are constrained to micro-territories. Human development has restricted their range and territory sizes to smaller areas than they occupy in natural landscapes. The Americas have 34 jaguar subpopulations, 25 of which are threatened and eight of which are in danger of extinction. These populations spread from Mexico to Northern Argentina, but population estimates within their micro-territories are limited.
Below is the list of jaguar population estimates in some, not all, countries where jaguars reside.
- Brazil ≈ 10,000 (CITES)
- Southeastern Peru ≈ 6,000 (WWF)
- Mexico ≈ 4,500 (National Census)
- Guyana & Suriname ≈ 2,000–3,500 (CITES)
- Bolivia ≈ 2,500 (UN)
- Ecuador ≈ 1,600 (CITES)
- Colombia ≈ 1,500 (UNAM)
- Nicaragua ≈ 500 (IUCN)
- Argentina ≈ 200 (CITES)
In addition to poaching, jaguars face different threats based on their habitats. In Ecuador and Paraguay, retaliation from farmers is one of the main causes of death. Retaliation killing is a problem around the globe and a major contributor to large cat decline, not only with jaguars but with other large cats and carnivore species that pose a threat to people’s livestock or safety. Fortunately, Defenders and other organizations are making large strides forward in advancing innovative and community-based non-lethal methods for mitigating human-carnivore conflict, such as the use of range riders and fladry, and last month announced research that showed effectiveness in several non-lethal methods. Methods like these will help manage the human-wildlife conflicts that result from growing human populations encroaching into big cat territory.
While jaguar retaliation killings has been a common response in places like Paraguay for some time, poaching jaguars for their fangs has drastically increased over the past few years. Countries such as Bolivia, Suriname, and Peru have reported several cases of Chinese citizens attempting to smuggle jaguar fangs through airports or shipping them back to China. These traffickers are threatening South America’s environmental wealth and placing its biodiversity in jeopardy. Yet, as with all global economic trade routes, the drivers and linkages are complex, and worth examining closely to identify constructive solutions.
Over the past few years, several regions across the Amazon have been targeted by the poaching of jaguars. In countries like Bolivia the number of jaguar fang seizures by government authorities has greatly increased. Between 2013–2018 police officers seized over 400 jaguar fangs. In addition, custom authorities in Beijing confiscated 119 jaguar fangs extracted from Bolivia. In a separate police investigation in February of 2018, Bolivian authorities caught two Chinese citizens in possession of 185 jaguar fangs in their restaurant. This equates to an approximate total of 175 jaguars killed to supply the growing demand for jaguar fangs in Bolivia. In a country with an estimated 2,000 jaguars, this amounts to nearly 10% of the population.
In the northern region of the Amazon, in Suriname’s tropical rainforests, road development as well as logging and mining concessions are facilitating the extraction of natural resources in areas that were previously inaccessible. It is in these settings where jaguar trade has drastically increased. A recent report by National Geographic shows that jaguar trade in Suriname focuses on the extraction of jaguar paste. This product is obtained through a procedure that results in “boiling down the body of a jaguar for seven days”. The product is an adaptation of tiger paste, a Chinese medicine used to cure excessive sleepiness. Once the process is completed, the paste is packed in small containers and shipped to the final destination.
In Peru, the epicenter of jaguar trade is located in the Amazon city of Iquitos. Here, a myriad of illicit wildlife is traded in the open, from small parakeets to large monkeys. The Iquitos markets provide a perfect stage for the illegal trade of many species, including jaguars. During a recent interview conducted by the Earth Journalism Network an Iquitos salesman stated that: “Chinese look for jaguar fangs as if it were gold to them”. As the demand for this product continues to grow, its effect on both jaguar populations and the ecosystems in which they live in will become amplified.
This new market means that Jaguars are facing a new threat — one that for the most part is demanded and supplied by Asian networks. As a result, action is needed. Jaguars are not only essential to the well-being of ecosystems but are also a symbol of culture and biodiversity in the Americas. With its mythological and spiritual representations, the jaguar is one of the most emblematic species of Latin America. The Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs, three of the largest empires in America, worshipped the jaguar as a god. People who illegally kill, trade, and purchase jaguar parts and products are ultimately threatening America’s cultural history and environmental wealth. We must take the necessary measures to combat the illegal trade of this emblematic species by addressing it as a serious crime, increasing surveillance and law enforcement in ports and borders, raising awareness and education for the public and in the judicial system, eliminating the demand for jaguar parts and engaging in diplomatic collaboration with counterparts in Asia to close the markets.
Ultimately, jaguar trafficking networks have a great potential to increase across the Americas as long as tiger demand in Asia continues to thrive. As top predators of their ecosystems, both tigers and jaguars are vital for driving environmental processes, and the result of conserving one shouldn’t damage the other. While this article focuses on only three countries, that is not to say that the jaguar fang trade has not occurred in the rest. Bolivia, Peru, and Suriname have received significant media attention on this topic, but the same could be occurring in Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador, or any other country that is home to this species.
The sad truth is that many of the trafficking operations are never intercepted, and as a result, it is difficult to understand the magnitude of this emerging trade. South American countries must collaborate with each other for the greater protection of jaguars and the Amazon rainforest. If they do not take significant efforts to stop illegal trade, these trafficking cases will mostly likely become more prevalent. Jaguars are believed to be a substitute for tigers and illegal trafficking networks have seemed to adapt to this change. As long as there is demand for tigers in Asia jaguars will continue to be at risk. We need to make an effort to educate people to conserve our wildlife and ecosystems as well as to form resistance to international demand that is threatening our environment and culture.
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