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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Shunning the Lab to Save Millions of Trafficked Animals

There are many ways to get the world to start saving the wildlife. For instance, not too long ago an enterprising conservationist chose to do his part by getting himself to be swallowed by a giant snake, an anaconda to be exact. A lady with a Ph. D. who is used to working within the confines of her secluded work has set her sights to join the fight and get her hands dirty. And the best way to do it she decided is to take precious time off her laboratory.

The Booming Illegal Industry

It may have managed to stay under the radar but poachers are raking in big when it comes to the number of animals taken from the wilds of Brazil. Recent estimates pega whopping 38 million animals are caught every year satisfying the global demand illegal it maybe. Most of those taken are birds, poised to be caged for pet lovers all over the world, mostly from Rio de Janeiro or Madrid or Sydney or New York.

Credit it to Brazil’s burgeoning demand for exotic pets, its largely weakened laws on wildlife trade compounded with the light penalties meted against violators that the illegal poaching on its wildlife has grown into a $2 billion industry.

Not if Juliana Machado Fereira can’t help it with the simplest of tools: information.

Enter Juliana

Juliana may just be the right person to get the job done. Armed with the right information she is in a good position to raise the fight for wildlife a notch higher.

Based in São Paulo, the wildlife conservationist affirms that it is customary for Brazil and many other South American nations to keep wild songbirds, parrots and macaws as pets. And that this is deeply ingrained right into their very culture.

"Most people have no idea that buying a parrot can have a devastating impact on nature, and support a whole system of illegal activities," she shares. "That's why educating consumers is crucial. Often, just giving them facts changes minds and behavior."

That is the goal of Freeland Brasil,an advocacy Machado Fereira has founded to fight illegal wildlife trafficking. And though she is constantly working with law enforcement at the forefront of what may become a full-blown war against trafficking, her organization wages a different side of the war – raising awareness of the problem via films and lectures and various educational programs for university students and high scholars alike.

Her group informs the public that more often than not, smuggled birds are prone to be mistreated and injured while in transit, with most of them ending up poorly-treated as caged pets. A lot of times, birds are not getting their needs answered, given the wrong food and placed in too small cages.

Yet, Juliana’s aims go beyond these individual animals. She affirms, "I care about the individual birds I rescue. But my real focus is on survival of whole species.”

"Brazil's wildlife is plundered in such huge numbers every day, severe imbalances are occurring within ecosystems," she expounds. "Extinctions of entire local populations can happen, and that affects many other prey and predator species up and down the food chain."

In the bigger picture, the illegal trade in Brazil has long-term side effects, definitely not beneficial for the human race. Altering local ecosystems result into inbreeding problems, weakening seed dispersal and producing inadequate pollination on many farms.

Taking a Stance with the Police

Yet, to a large extent, Juliana has contributed a lot more than just providing the right information to buyers of illegally-acquired wildlife. A large portion of her work is targeted at developing handy scientific techniques that give law enforcement agencies leverage in battling traffickers.

Armed with a Ph.D. in genetics, she was able to come up with species-specific molecular markers enabling police to identify the exact origins of a seized bird, for instance. Also, this acts like a lie detector separating legally bred species with illegally acquired. Additionally, this molecular tracking makes it a lot easier to return rehabilitated birds to the spot where they should be.

The delicacy of the matter is echoed by Machado Ferreria who stipulates, “"Even within the same species, distinct groups with unique genetic differences can evolve as they adapt to particular environments." Further, she added, “So if a scarlet macaw that was stolen from a forest in the northeast is returned to a forest in the northwest, it could mate and jeopardize the long-term health and viability of that local population."

A Most Versatile Wildlife Activist

Machado Ferreira’s work has seen her forging a decade-long research collaboration with the world-renowned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services National Forensics Laboratory. Over the years, however, she has learned to spend lots of time outside her lab.

Her Freeland Brazil, a global partner of Thailand's Freeland Foundation– another group at the forefront of putting wildlife trafficking and human slavery to an end –gives police needed training to lower the escalating death rate of seized animals.
To date, she’s putting key knowledge into a guidebook to help law enforcement agencies in the fight against illegal trafficking.

It’s no wonder Machado Ferreira’s name has become synonymous with wildlife conservation efforts catapulting her to the national scene. And she’s upping the ante. Helped by SOS Fauna,an animal welfare group, she goes with law enforcement in the field, even joining key police raids helping identify and count animals in the process. This work is fraught with danger as it revolves around danger-prone street markets.

"Traffickers don't want to risk bringing all their merchandise to a fair, so police intelligence information [has] also led us to homes near the markets where illegal cargo was held," she explains. "We would stake out surveillance in front of those houses and then join the raid to seize the animals."

She is bringing the fight even to the political arena, lobbying for stronger anti-trafficking laws to Brazilian legislators. However, she knows that the road to redemption is still a long way to go saying: "The lobby which supports the wild pet trade is very strong, powerful, and well-financed."

She envisions a cross-border network much like the more successful ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network and acknowledges a great need to be bold now saying, "We need to act now—or we'll have nothing left to protect."

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