Animal Trade Giving Drugs Run for Money In S. America

ANIMAL trafficking has become such good business that some drug traffickers are abandoning cocaine trafficking for the lucrative practice, officials in Colombia and Brazil say.

A $5-billion business worldwide, trafficking in wild animals is the third most lucrative contraband in the world, after arms and drugs, says Dick Smith, former deputy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. Many animals are worth more - ounce for ounce - than cocaine. A hyacinth macaw can fetch as much as $10,000 in the United States, a woolly monkey $50,000 in Japan.

In the Amazon basin, 15 to 20 million fowl are captured yearly, according to the New York Zoological Society. Colombia and Brazil, South America's main providers of illegally traded animals, top the list worldwide for their diversity of fauna. These countries are also the world's main suppliers of cocaine, and many of the same people involved in South American drug trafficking deal in contraband of wild animals.

``Animal enforcement is spotty, and animals represent a much lower risk than drugs,'' explains Colombia's top animal smuggling enforcement officer, who requested anonymity. ``The traffickers see it as sort of a respite.''

Smugglers of animals must bribe the same officials and use the same routes as drug smugglers, adds Mr. Smith.

SOMETIMES the animals' bodies are used to conceal drugs. An inspection at Bogota's airport in 1993 uncovered a load of snakes whose entrails were stuffed with cocaine-filled condoms. Most of the snakes were dead.

Smuggled animals suffer terribly, says Marc van Roosmalen of the National Investigation Institute of the Amazons in Manaus, Brazil. ``The poachers usually have to kill about 10 adults in order to capture one baby monkey specimen,'' he says. The majority of animals die in transit.

Most trafficked animals are sold to buyers in the US, followed by Japan, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

One strategy for undermining wild-animal trafficking is to permit the private breeding of these animals. Colombia permits the breeding of crocodiles, which are exported with special certificates.

But private breeding does not solve the problem. On Feb. 1, Colombia's Natural Resources Institute announced that police had seized 449 live crocodiles that were obtained from the wild. Smugglers also forge the certificates, says Dick Robinson of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And officials privately say that drug money is often laundered through the breeding farms.

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