In 2012 alone, Colombia's environmental police rescued 46,637 illegally trafficked animals, a trade that brings in about 64 billion pesos (about $35 million) a year, according to a report by Colombian daily ADN.
Vendors paint the animals in bright colors and declaw them to make them more attractive to buyers, the ADN report highlights. Colombia's birds, snakes, and other exotic species are usually sold as pets, luxury food items, aphrodisiacs, or remedies in alternative medicine.
According to ADN, the most frequently trafficked animals outside of Colombia include the orange-chinned parakeet (at least 400 rescued per year in Bogota), much in demand due to its ability to imitate speech, the "icotea" freshwater tortoise (350 rescued a year), and the yellow-crowned parrot (some 320 rescued per year).
In one indication of the sheer size of Colombia's illicit wildlife trade, Bogota's main wildlife rehabilitation center reports receiving some 350 animals each month. Only about 15 percent of these are successfully reintegrated back into the wild. The rest stay in captivity, donated to zoos or parks.
Not only do the illegally trafficked animals supply a domestic market within Colombia, they are also smuggled to Europe, the United States, and Asia. Worldwide, illegal animal sales garner some $20 billion a year, according to estimates by Interpol.
InSight Crime Analysis
Exotic animal trafficking is the world's third largest illicit trade after drug and weapons. In Colombia, the trade is particularly well established thanks to the biodiversity of areas like the Eastern Plains and the Amazon, which provide smugglers ready access to animals which fetch a high price in the global black market.
Animal smugglers also rely on the same well-established movement corridors used to transport drug shipments, as a 2009 report by Reuters highlighted. Drug traffickers supplement their profits by taxing animal smugglers in exchange for using the same smuggling routes, or may even use the animals to help hide the drug shipments.
Not only are animal and drug smuggling routes often the same, but drug leaders often use exotic beasts as power symbols. One Zetas leader, borrowing a page from Pablo Escobar's African hippos, allegedly housed two lions and a tiger on his ranch, where it was rumored he fed the animals with the bodies of his rivals.