BOLIVIAN environmentalists are increasingly concerned that demand in the West for animal skins and the lack of effective government control could soon mean the extinction of a number of endangered species. According to the La Paz-based League for the Defense of the Environment (LIDEMA), the multimillion-dollar illegal trade in skins and hides is especially endangering certain types of crocodile, alligator, boa constrictor, and mountain cat. Particularly under threat are the alligators known as the Yacare - whose numbers have dropped from 100,000 in 1980 to 15,000 - and the caim'an negro, down from 3,500 to 300 - virtually all of which are found in Bolivia.
Like Bolivia's role in the international cocaine trade, in which poor peasants growing coca leaves receive only a fraction of the final street price, a Bolivian hunter receives $6 to $10 for an alligator skin, compared to a trader who can get $1,000 in Japan or Europe. And a skin that can be turned into a handbag, pair of shoes, or a coat can be worth $50,000.
Gunter Peter, an expert from the German environmental group Action to Protect Endangered Species, estimates that Bolivia has lost 80 percent of its wildlife in the last 20 years, much of it exported to industrialized countries. The routes from Bolivia - usually to Spain, West Germany, Japan, and the United States - follow similar paths to those used by cocaine traffickers.
According to Juan Villalba, regional representative for the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species, drug traffickers are moving into the skin trade. ``Traffickers in cocaine and skins work very well together. It can't be a small-scale business now the `narcos' have put their money into it.''
``The worst period in Bolivia was from 1981 to 1984, when poorly paid government officials were bribed by the companies to hand out export licenses,'' says Alfredo Aparicio, LIDEMA's head of communications.
Since two banning laws were passed in 1985 and 1987, the trade has declined. And environmentalist groups say the illegal issue of export licenses has decreased significantly.
The value of the trade is hard to estimate, but Mr. Peter calculates it has been $33 million in Bolivia over the last 10 years. It could be worth much more, since just one German company called Edelstein is known to have exported more than 1 million skins from 1982 to 1985. The total value of the skins, much of which came from Bolivia, is estimated at $35 million.
Further evidence of the sheer volume of the illicit trade was revealed last year when an unprecedented 375,000 skins, more than half of them from Bolivia, were discovered in Madrid. Legal proceedings are under way against the two Bolivian companies involved and two government officials who signed the illegal exportation order.
However, active preservation is also under way. The Biological Station of the Beni, a Bolivian nature conservation area, is having some success in providing protection for threatened wildlife including crocodiles, the giant armadillo, and even the caim'an negro.