As with much criminal trade, wildlife crime also applies: without demand, there is no supply. For that demand we should not be in South America, but on the other side of the planet. Jaguar parts are sold on the Asian black market. Traditionally a healing effect is attributed to products of certain animal species, especially powerful animals such as elephants, sharks and tigers. There are now so few tigers living in the wild that it is hardly possible to get hold of the teeth of this animal. As a replacement, the jaguar, the 'American tiger', became popular. Their teeth are barely distinguishable from those of their striped relatives.
The route to that black market starts in the jungle. Here the big cats are shot by locals. Sometimes to prevent the jaguar from attacking their cattle, sometimes as revenge for earlier attacks on cattle or sometimes because they know that a carcass or tooth is worth a lot. This makes it very tempting to go into business with the traders. The criminal traders then transport the body parts from the interior of the country to the city and make sure they are processed further. Supermarkets, jewelers and other stores run by Chinese shopkeepers are often used as cover here. Some of the products are then smuggled out of the country via airports.
Breaking the chain
To break the chain, Operation Jaguar was set up. This collaboration between IUCN NL, IFAW, Earth League International and ARTIS with the support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery has been running since last year. Now the first results of the undercover work are coming out. By posing as buyers or other criminals, the infiltrators got to know poachers and traders and were constantly given new information and contacts. More and more pieces of the puzzle came into the hands of Operation Jaguar in this way, which gave a good picture of how the criminal network works. Meanwhile, the Bolivian network has been mapped and contact has been made with the Bolivian government to determine the next steps to roll up this network.
The undercover work in Bolivia is therefore largely finished. But this does not mean that the work for the operation is also finished. Making trade more difficult, creating awareness to reduce demand from buyers and supporting local conservationists to keep poachers out of their habitat are also part of the project. As well as training local authorities to crack down on crime and put pressure on policymakers to stop jaguar poaching and illegal trade.
Education in ARTIS
One of the ways in which the project is helping to make smuggling difficult is the use of tracking dogs at airports. The animals sniff through the luggage and are able to find jaguar products flawlessly. In the beginning of this year, one of the trainers of the Dutch organization Scent Imprint Conservation Dogs got two new tracking dogs to use in ports, at border crossings and at airports in Latin America where it is suspected that many jaguar products are smuggled. Because of corona, however, air traffic was stopped, so the dogs could not be trained with intercepted contraband.
It was important that the animals became familiar with the scent of jaguar as soon as possible. As soon as the air traffic started up again, the smuggling could take a flight because there was a supply of jaguars. The jaguars in ARTIS offered a solution for this. The animal caretakers collected the stools of the animals and placed blankets in their enclosures so that they could absorb the smell. This way, the new tracking dogs could become familiar with the smell of the feline, so they could help Operation Jaguar as soon as they could.
The jaguar lives a secluded existence. That is why it is difficult to estimate how many still live in South America. Estimates range from 60,000 to 210,000. Partly due to the poaching, the number of animals in the last 20 years certainly decreased by 20 to 25%.