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China’s lust for jaguar fangs imperils big cats

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Desdemona Despair

By Barbara Fraser
23 February 2018

(Nature) – The jaguar was found floating in a drainage canal in Belize City, Belize, on the day after Christmas last year. Its body was mostly intact, but the head was missing its fangs. On 10 January 2018, a second cat — this time, an ocelot that may have been mistaken for a young jaguar — turned up headless in the same channel.

The killings point to a growing illicit trade in jaguars (Panthera onca) that disturbs wildlife experts. The cats’ fangs, skulls, and hides have long been trophies for Latin American collectors who flout international prohibitions against trading in jaguar parts. But in recent years, a trafficking route has emerged to China, where the market for jaguars could be increasing because of crackdowns on the smuggling of tiger parts used in Chinese traditional medicine.

Wildlife trafficking often follows Chinese construction projects in other countries, because Chinese workers can send or take objects home, says ecologist Vincent Nijman of Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, UK. “If there’s a demand [in China] for large-cat parts, and that demand can be fulfilled by people living in parts of Africa, other parts of Asia or South America, then someone will step in to fill that demand,” he says. “It’s often Chinese-to-Chinese trade, but it’s turning global.”

That seems to be the case in Bolivia, where eight packages containing a total of 186 jaguar fangs were confiscated between August 2014 and February 2015 before they could reach China. Seven had been sent by Chinese citizens living in Bolivia. Eight more were reportedly intercepted in 2016, and a package of 120 fangs was seized in China, says Angela Núñez, a Bolivian biologist who is researching the trade.

Those packages could represent the deaths of more than 100 jaguars, although it’s impossible to be sure, Núñez says. In northern Bolivia, where several Chinese companies are working, radio advertisements and flyers have offered US$120 to $150 per fang — more than a month’s income for many local people. Two Chinese men have been arrested for trading in jaguar parts. One, detained in 2014, received a three-year suspended sentence. The other, arrested in 2016, is awaiting sentencing but failed to appear for two recent court hearings; Bolivian officials fear that he may have left the country.

That’s a problem with wildlife trafficking worldwide, says Nijman, who adds that very few wildlife trafficking cases lead to criminal sentences. “The deterrent is when somebody ends up in jail,” he says — but that rarely happens “because society as a whole in most countries is not interested”. […]

More than a century ago, jaguars roamed forests, savannahs and scrub land from the southwestern United States to Paraguay. Deforestation and other disturbances caused by people — especially the expansion of agriculture — have cut the cats’ habitat in half, says wildlife ecologist John Polisar, who coordinates the jaguar programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

That has depleted the jaguars’ prey, and in some areas has forced the big cats into contact with people and livestock, says Polisar, who works across parts of Central and South America. Estimates of the remaining jaguar population range from about 60,000 animals to nearly three times that number. [more]

China’s lust for jaguar fangs imperils big cats


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