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

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While eco-trafficking in Costa Rica has largely been associated with turtles, recent raids have shown how its butterflies, beetles, wasps and spiders can also fetch startling prices on the international black market.

In late November, authorities conducted five raids on residences and a butterfly farm in Puntarenas in search of evidence to support wildlife trafficking allegations which had been tracked since March 2018, the country’s prosecutor for environmental affairs reported. Four members of the same family were arrested.

While the family in question has a permit from the Ministry of the Environment and Energy to operate a butterfly farm, the Attorney General’s Office is investigating allegations that the farm served as a cover for illegal exports to Germany, Holland and France.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

The family did not have permits to export wildlife yet investigators believe they were selling insects and arachnids for up to $1,100 each. Some 700 different insect species were sent monthly by mail, packaged in boxes labeled as handicrafts, reported Costa Rican newspaper La Nación.

Other live animals in Costa Rica prized by smugglers are reptiles — including iguanas and snakes — and frogs. The trade in illegal animal parts is also prevalent. Costa Rica’s jungle cats have been killed for their pelts and sharks harvested for their fins.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Puntarenas butterfly trafficking case highlights how wildlife trafficking presents low risk and high rewards — enticing people into the trade. 

In 2018, the country investigated 25 similar cases, and in just the first half of 2019, some 354 protected species were confiscated. Among those charged in 2019 with violating Costa Rica’s Wildlife Law were two Germans caught in the airport with spiders and ants in their suitcases. 

The potential profits are tempting, as buyers in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia are willing to pay high prices. Jessica Speart, author of a book on butterfly trafficking, told PRI that obsessive collectors are willing to spend $60,000 dollars on especially rare butterflies.

Meanwhile, the risks are fairly low. Costa Rica’s Law for the Protection of Wildlife only sets one to three-year prison sentences and mild fines for eco-trafficking. InSight Crime has found that such low prison sentences and fines are not uncommon across the region. Additionally, traffickers are often able to use low cost and low risk means for shipments. Investigators say insect traffickers usually kill the creatures with chloroform and mail them via regular international package delivery services, CRHoy reported.

As the world’s most biodiverse continent, home to roughly 40 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, Latin America is a longtime hub for wildlife trafficking

Graphic courtesy of CRHoy.com

Wildlife trafficking can decimate populations of coveted species and also jeopardize the economy of a country like Costa Rica that largely depends on ecotourism. “If you don’t have wildlife to view, people aren’t going to come,” Sue Lieberman, vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told the Guardian.   

SEE ALSO: Spain Dismantles Cold-Blooded Wildlife Trafficking Ring

In October 2019, Latin American and European governments from more than 20 countries signed the Lima Declaration, an agreement to collaborate on efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. “It’s not stalled, or declining, it’s on the rise. It’s a globalized business and it needs a globalized response,” Peru’s head of its forestry and wildlife services, Luis Alberto Gonzales-Zuñiga, said regarding the declaration. 

Unfortunately, corruption is one of the greatest hindrances to combating this illicit trade. Salvador Ortega, Interpol’s head of forest crime for Latin America, told the Guardian that officials need to take their role in combating wildlife trafficking seriously, stating that “they need to understand that they are part of the supply chain for a transnational criminal organization.”

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