Songbirds to Raptor Eggs, the Looting of Latin America’s Bird Species

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The case of an infamous Irish trafficker who is facing extradition to Brazil for stealing peregrine falcon eggs has brought attention to the diverse ways in which the region’s avian species are being plundered.

Jeffrey Lendrum is currently completing a prison sentence of three years and one month in the United Kingdom after being arrested in June 2018, having flown in with 19 eggs from endangered birds of prey in South Africa tied to his body, including vultures, eagles, hawks and kites, reported the Telegraph. His smuggled cargo was valued at some 100,000 pounds (around $130,000).

Prosecutors in Brazil, from where he skipped bail in 2016, are now requesting his extradition. He was arrested trying to board a flight from São Paulo to Johannesburg carrying four albino peregrine falcon eggs that he obtained illegally in Chile, which were worth an estimated $80,000 on the black market, the Guardian reported at the time. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in Brazil but skipped bail.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

While Lendrum’s high-profile heists have seen a book and numerous articles written about him, he is but the tip of the iceberg of those pillaging Latin America’s native species.

On January 15, a Belgian citizen, Hugo Conings, was arrested at Lima airport trying to smuggle 20 live birds in cardboard boxes onto a flight bound for Madrid, according to Peru’s forestry service. These included 18 tanagers, prized for their bright plumage, and two toucanets. Conings now faces up to five years in jail.

InSight Crime Analysis

Coverage about the smuggling of wild birds from South America has often focused on parrots, especially macaws, thousands of which are reportedly trafficked every year. But the region is facing a far more complex panorama of live bird and egg trafficking, with a range of species targeted for their plumage, speed or ability to carry a tune.

December 2018 report by the wildlife monitoring network Traffic and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that smuggling eggs instead of live birds had become an increasingly popular option in Latin America. Beginning back in 2002 on flights between Brazil and Portugal, eggs of parrots and toucans were initially the most frequently seen examples. But the trade has evolved as awareness of this crime has grown.

National Geographic report revealed that traffickers “launder” the eggs of macaws, flying them into Europe illegally, incubating them there and then selling them off legally as having been bred in captivity. The deception runs deep. The chicks are hatched in aviaries, fed by hand and have metal bands placed on their legs to simulate the breeding process.

The only way to detect if a bird was truly bred in captivity is to carry out a “DNA parentage test” by plucking and then examining feathers to see if the birds truly have the parentage described in their paperwork.

Parrots are not the only target. Lendrum’s poaching career revolved around birds of prey, including peregrine falcons. This bird, the fastest on earth that can reach speeds of over 320 kilometers per hour, is prized by falconry enthusiasts, often in the Middle East. His 2016 arrest in Brazil came when he tried to smuggle peregrine falcon eggs originally taken from Chile. An attempt was made to repatriate the eggs before they hatched, but only one chick survived and was eventually released in Patagonia, according to a British police report.

But the smuggling of eggs has not replaced attempts to steal live birds, as shown in the recent Peru case. “The other big trade is in songbirds,” Traffic spokesperson Richard Thomas told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Butterflies, Beetles and Spiders: Costa Rica’s Smaller Eco-trafficking Targets

Songbirds such as the large-billed seed finch are taken from the wild to be used in songbird competitions. “People bet on how many songs it will sing in an hour, for example, or how long it can keep singing,” explained Thomas. Songbird competitions are popular pastimes in Guyana and Suriname, he said, adding that the practice had spread to expatriate communities in New York and the Netherlands.

These diminutive songsters can fetch between $3,000 and $5,000 each in the United States, according to a New York Times investigation.

But not all the bird trafficking leaves the region. The saffron finch, for example, has been smuggled from Peru to Brazil for singing competitions.

“Smaller species like songbirds haven’t received the same priority,” said Thomas. “They reproduce faster and their population rebounds more rapidly, but there are real risks. The red siskin, popularly kept as a caged bird, has largely been extirpated from its natural range.”

And while the joint Traffic-WWE investigation found that the “international illegal trade in South American birds has been reduced to its lowest level in decades,” it’s still a major cause for concern.

It also remains to be seen if the jail terms facing the likes of high-profile eco-traffickers like Lendrum will act as an effective deterrent.

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