Photograph by Kirsten Luce, National Geographic
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Veterinarian Violeta Barrera Navarro cradles a sloth after the rescue operation in Puerto Alegría.

Photograph by Kirsten Luce, National Geographic

Sloths, manatee, other wildlife rescued from Amazon tourism trade

Authorities have rescued 22 wild animals illegally being used as tourist photo props in a Peruvian town on the Amazon river.

It’s a happy ending for 22 wild Amazonian animals who were rescued last week from illegal captivity in Puerto Alegría, Peru, a tiny jungle town on the Amazon river. Peruvian law enforcement confiscated animals including three sloths, a manatee, and a porcupine that town residents kept as a draw for tour boats.

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Wildlife experts wrangle a 10-foot-long anaconda into a net for transport as police and residents of Puerto Alegría look on. The anaconda, captured from the jungle, was a big draw for tourist photos.

The rescue disrupts Puerto Alegría’s conveyor-belt system of deadly wildlife tourism, an illegal but lucrative trade in this impoverished area. A regular stream of tour boats brings dozens of visitors each day to the community to take photos with animals that have been snatched from the jungle. In the off-hours, some residents keep the animals in their homes or in cages under their houses, replacing them with other animals from the jungle when they die. The 22 rescued last week had likely all been captured within the last few weeks or months, says Angela Maldonado, a conservationist with Colombia-based NGO Entropika who organized the raid.

The police operation comes a year and a half after National Geographic published an investigation of the wildlife tourism industry in the town that exposed the animals’ mistreatment and the tour operators who directly feed the problem. The stress of being kept in crude cages, fed poor diets, and handled by dozens of people a day causes many animals to die quickly after being caught, says Maldonado. A six-month-long investigation by UK-based NGO World Animal Protection previously chronicled the scale of the mistreatment.

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A police officer removes a sloth from a wooden railing. This large platform is the main “selfie spot” for dozens of tourists who arrive by boat each day to handle the wild animals. Local tour companies facilitate the visits.

The animals documented by National Geographic last August have almost certainly all died, Maldonado says, including an anteater who was fed a diet of strawberry yogurt.

Maldonado says the National Geographic story helped pressure authorities into action, after she’d tried for several years to have them intervene. Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche, the environmental prosecutor of Loreto province where Puerto Alegría is located, says the story deepened his concern about the situation “since people at an international level knew about this.”

“This was the right moment to take action since this is quite a forgotten area in Peru,” Caraza Atoche says. “But we, as the public ministry, [have a duty to ensure] that the laws are upheld and that animals are protected.”

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This toucan is one of 14 birds rescued, including scarlet macaws and parrots. All of the animals had been captured illegally from the jungle.

Puerto Alegría is located in an area called Tres Fronteras, where Peru, Colombia, and Brazil meet on the Amazon river. There are virtually no border controls on the river there, which facilitates wildlife trafficking and makes it difficult for authorities from three separate countries to address the situation.

Maldonado says she’s relieved the Peruvian government stepped up. Because Peru’s environmental authorities have no presence in the area, the costly operation involved flying 33 police officers into the region, as well as two military cargo planes to transport the animals. “We always complain when the police don’t do anything. This is a time when they deserve credit for doing something,” she says. “Without them, it never would have happened.”

THE RESCUE MISSION

In addition to the 33 officers from the environmental division of the Peruvian National Police, the operation involved the Peruvian Coast Guard, Air Force, prosecutor Caraza Atoche, veterinarians, and a Lima-based representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The team of about 40 arrived in Puerto Alegría by boat on Thursday morning. Previous reconnaissance missions had found that 28 animals appeared to be held illegally in the town and had pinpointed some of the houses where they were located.

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Officers and veterinarians hoist a manatee to the waiting boat. The manatee was being kept in a pond for tourists to feed and photograph.

Authorities raided the platform above the river where residents were waiting to offer animals for photos, a number of houses, and a pond that housed an underweight manatee, which was subsisting at least in part on soy milk that tourists fed her from baby bottles. Using netting and lots of manpower, the officers wrangled the manatee out of the water and into a hammock, where they carried her to the waiting boat.

The team rescued 22 out of the 28 known captive animals. A 10-foot-long anaconda, a squirrel monkey, three sloths, a porcupine, a tiny wild cat called a margay, and several macaws, parrots, and toucans were among those saved. Others couldn’t be found, including a second porcupine and a night monkey.

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An air force officer snaps a photo of a rescued squirrel monkey. Puerto Alegría residents make tips from tourist visits, while tour agencies that run the visits make even larger profit.

Agents, vets, and animals then rode boats back down the river to Santa Rosa, where they boarded the military cargo planes and flew to Iquitos, Peru. There, the animals were brought to two rehabilitation facilities, including the Centro de Rescate Amazonico (CREA), which specializes in caring for manatees. Because the rescue operation was put together quickly, over just a few weeks, Entropika and CREA scrambled to find proper care and housing for all the animals. CREA veterinarian Violeta Barrera Navarro is caring for the smallest sloth at her home, and the facility hopes to raise money to build a proper enclosure for the margay, which is being kept in a cage. The animals are responding well to treatment, Barrera Navarro says, but she notes that the margay is still very stressed.

Eventually, veterinarians will assess which animals may be able to return to the wild and which may have to remain in captivity. The manatee, for one, will need three full years of rehabilitation at CREA. If all goes well, they hope to then release her in a local national park.

PERMANENT SOLUTION?

Angela Maldonado of Entropika realizes there is a risk that Puerto Alegría residents will simply catch new animals to replace the ones confiscated. In order to prevent this, Entropika plans to work with the community immediately, to help them establish a new form of income that will still attract tour boats without exploiting wild animals.

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At the Centro de Rescate Amazonico, a wildlife rehab center in Iquitos, veterinarians lower the rescued manatee into a pool. She is more than 40 pounds underweight and will require three years of rehabilitation before she can be released back into the wild.

“We need a very short-term solution for these people so they don’t feel like they were left with nothing, especially at Christmastime,” she says. Entropika and CREA plan to start working with the community this week to set up a temporary cultural museum, showcasing traditional Peruvian musical instruments, cooking utensils, and fiber dyes. In the long term, Maldonado would like to work with them to establish butterfly gardens. She’s seen these gardens have success in other places and says that although it will take six months of dedicated work to get it up and running, it’s a beautiful, low-cost project that all community members, young and old, can participate in.

She also hopes that local district police will help to enforce the situation on the ground.

“It was a lot of work, but I think it was worth it,” Maldonado says of the operation. “The animals deserve this.”