The insatiable demand for wildlife in Trinidad and Tobago has encouraged a thriving trade between the twin island republic and its neighbour Venezuela. For years, the illegal trade has existed between the two countries, mainly for the market in Trinidad, but with the crippling economic crisis in Venezuela more of its citizens are lured into the profitable illegal trade as a means of survival. Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost islands in the Caribbean archipelago, lie approximately seven miles east off the nearest coast of Venezuela. On a go fast boat the trip between the two countries is approximately 10 minutes on the north west coast. Recently a peek into the extent of the trade was uncovered with the arrests of several smugglers, rescues of animals both on land and at sea and discoveries of non-local species of animals in the country.
Several media reports show that most of the wildlife discovered are found in the southern part of the island mostly in the possession of Venezuelan nationals in company with locals. The animals are smuggled over in pirogues from the South American country to Trinidad into the anxious hands of customers. The animals are obtained for sale as pets and for local consumption as expensive, exotic dishes. Animals frequently trafficked into Trinidad are Parrots, Macaws, Monkeys, Iguanas, Otters, Sloths, Tapirs, and once as far as records show, even a pair of Jaguars! Law enforcement officers both on land and at sea have lately been kept busy with the discoveries and investigations into the smuggled animals. As early as June 2020 law enforcement officials have intercepted a number of Venezuelan nationals at times in company with Trinidad and Tobago citizens either in pirogues on the sea or on land with the contraband items. In August, international headlines were made when smugglers were caught by Coast Guard officers on the sea attempting to smuggle in a large quantity of birds, otters and other wild animals. On seeing the local authorities, the smugglers threw the animals and birds into the sea whilst still in their cages. Most of birds drowned though a few were saved. The perpetrators were all arrested and charged.
Many traffickers are not caught, and the trade flourishes. A cursory glance on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp show advertisements from numerous persons selling sometimes protected birds and other animals at cheap prices.
One such in demand item is the bullfinch bird locally referred to as a ‘Chikichong’. It is a prized possession in competitive bird singing competitions. Locally birds cost thousands but those trafficked from Venezuela cost around $TTD 300 (USD$45) per bird by the dozen on the black market. However, if the bird has started to sing, prices start at $TTD 500 plus (USD$75+) per bird by the dozen. Domestic animals are also brought over such as cows, goats, and sheep for local consumption at butcher shops. The latter caught the attention of government and then Minister of Agriculture Mr Clarence Rambharat lamented that the unscrupulous trade was encouraged by the local demand for cheaper goods which places citizens at risk because the animals are usually diseased and malnourished.
Interviews with law enforcement personnel also highlighted the concern that the same routes taken by wildlife traffickers are the same used for human smuggling as well as for the trafficking of guns, drugs, and humans. Research has shown that law enforcement officers have expressed concerns about the involvement of organized criminal groups in the trade and the subsequent money laundering from the huge profits made. The illegal trade in wildlife is an easy source of income and may be the only means of survival to the troubled citizens of Venezuela. It is a fact that it is not viewed as a real crime by those who participate. Until that perception is addressed in both the source and market countries then Trinidad and Tobago’s law enforcement officers need to work assiduously to protect its borders in order to counteract the trade in illegal wildlife.
*Animal photos are from bystanders at seizures
By Jenny Constantine, Transnational Organized Crime – Researcher, Trinidad and Tobago Police Academy