CURACA, BRAZIL — As a blue flash appears in the evening sky, Antnio Maral dos Santos runs through his backyard yelling, "Here he comes!"
Mr. dos Santos is one of many peasants who are unofficial guardians of the blue Spix macaw, the last of its species to survive in the wild. "It gives me great satisfaction each day to know that he is still alive," says the Cura goatherder.
The Spix macaw is an example of what's resulted from illegal animal trafficking - an estimated $5 billion global business that Brazil's National Network Against Wild Animal Trafficking (Renctas) says trails only narcotics and weapons in illegal commerce.
"These traffickers are as well organized as the drug and arms mafias," says Renctas General Coordinator Dener Giovanini.
And Brazil is fighting back, with a vigor once reserved for battling the narcotics trade. In recent months, the country's authorities have persevered against cultural resistance and governmental neglect, campaigning to end animal trafficking by teaming up for the first time with the eight-month-old Renctas and IBAMA, Brazil's federal environmental protection agency.
And as with contraband and drugs, the US is the top customer in the illicit purchase of endangered fauna.
"The United States is undoubtedly the world's largest wildlife consuming country and center of commerce for the world's animals," says Traffic, monitoring arm of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
In Brazil, tropical birds such as the Spix macaw, along with reptiles and small monkeys, bring in as much as $700 million a year from collectors, pet shops, and scientific institutions, according to Renctas. And the rarer the species, the higher the price abroad. The Spix macaw, for example, sells for as much as $60,000, the organization says.
In February, a naturalized US citizen named Manoel Loureno Galo was arrested in So Paulo trying to smuggle to Pennsylvania 24 hyacinth macaw eggs estimated at $10,000 each.
"Since many species are near extinction, even politicians are listening to us now," says Elizabeth MacGregor, Brazil representative for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"And in every Brazilian city, there is some type of organization that protects animals," he adds.
Brazil, Colombia, and Peru are home to animal traffickers' favorite South American fauna while Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay typically serve as transit points for Asia, Europe, and the United States. In Colombia, the second-richest country after Brazil in biological diversity, poaching has driven several parrot species to the brink of extinction.
Deforestation, hunting, and poverty have also helped decimate regional wildlife, but the Biodiversitas Foundation says trafficking has played the principal role in endangering 218 Brazilian species.
Renctas's Mr. Giovanini says most Brazilian wildlife is typically trapped by poor villagers in the impoverished north and brought to So Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's largest cities, and then smuggled out of airports or sold at hundreds of outdoor markets. But police raids on such city markets are becoming routine.
Recent raids of 15 minutes each in the Rio suburbs of Duque de Caxias and So Gonalo yielded 174 live wild birds and six turtles crammed into crude wooden cages. "We have to get in and get out quickly so people don't get upset," says Major Padrone, who led the raids. "Many think the law is foolish."
In Brazil, environmentalists are fighting not only a highly organized business but a culture that is nearly 500 years old. "When the Portuguese landed, they found Indians with parrots perched on their shoulders who exchanged them for gifts," says IBAMA's Francisco Neo.
Currently, Renctas is pressuring the government to beef up enforcement by placing IBAMA agents at every international airport and port, and creating triage centers in each state for police to take confiscated wildlife.
In Cura, the Blue Macaw Project appears to be an exception to the federal government's policy of neglect. After the discovery of the lone wild Spix in 1990, the government immediately mounted an unprecedented effort to save the bird from extinction, including providing it with a bodyguard (see story left).
The government also formed an international commission of official agencies, scientists, and private groups to stop traffickers - poachers typically put glue on tree branches to capture the Spix - and promote the bird's regeneration. The committee includes the Houston Zoo and the WWF.
Many Cura residents have also joined in as protectors.
A large sign on the town's outskirts says "Welcome to the Home of the Blue Macaw." At the "Little Blue Macaw School" elementary students write poetry about the rare bird and draw his picture. "Leave him alone, he's the last," writes fourth grader Geovane Jesus in a recent exercise.
And Maral dos Santos spends hours whittling the Spix's image out of wood to sell to the few bird watchers who visit. "The people here see him as a symbol of their lives in the drought-plagued northeast," says Biologist Yara de Melo Barros, the project's field coordinator. "He confronts life adversities just as they do." he says. "We will use the Illigers he trained as guides."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society