A brief story appeared early this year on a news website in Suriname under the headline, “Jaguar teeth found on departing travelers.” The article noted that three Chinese men were arrested in January in possession of the teeth—illegal in Suriname, where jaguars are a protected species. The men were given a “hefty fine” and “sent away.”
Despite numerous inquiries to several ministries and the public prosecutor's office, many of the cases's details still weren't available; however, a representative for the Ministry of Physical Planning, Land, and Forest Management, which oversees wildlife issues, said in an email that the men actually were not fined and were allowed to continue on their journey. It's not clear who was responsible for that decision.
Though few details are known, it’s apparent that this case is emblematic of a much larger, well-organized network of international jaguar trafficking, with the cats being “killed to order,” turned into jewelry and a medicinal product called “glue,” and smuggled out of Suriname in carry-on luggage on commercial airlines.
The problem was first highlighted by the World Wildlife Fund’s Guianas office in 2010. Now a new investigation by the London-based nonprofit World Animal Protection has provided insights into who the traffickers are, how they work, and the damage they’re doing.
CHINA’S STAKE IN SURINAME
China has been investing heavily in Suriname, as it has elsewhere in South America. A wave of Chinese immigration that began about 20 years ago has brought in thousands of people who work as loggers, miners, and shop owners. The Chinese run operations from major road and building projects to huge logging and mining concessions in the interior jungle.
Access roads to the logging and mining operations have opened up previously inaccessible forested regions, and the back-and-forth travel of Chinese expatriates facilitates the movement of goods out of Suriname. It’s in this setting that the illegal trade in jaguar products has developed.
“It is certainly likely that the influx of Chinese citizens has expanded the domestic market for jaguar parts in Suriname,” says Pauline Verheij of the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare. She investigated Suriname’s jaguar trade in early 2018, before joining IFAW, and has found evidence of Chinese people buying jaguar parts in Suriname as long ago as 2003. She adds that in addition to the recent wave of Chinese immigrants, Suriname has a sizeable community of Chinese-Surinamese born and raised in the country who also buy and use jaguar products. Some evidence exists that other groups do as well, though on a much smaller scale.
“Filipinos are rumored to consume the meat—then you have anyone coming to buy jaguar teeth and fangs [for jewelry]. Sometimes the skins will be displayed by locals,” says Nicholas Bruschi, who led the World Animal Protection investigation. But “it’s the Chinese who seem to be dealing in the high amounts of product.”
The main driver of the trade, according to the investigation, is jaguar paste. Alternatively known as jaguar glue, it’s a molasses-like substance made by boiling down the body of a jaguar for seven days. It’s rumored to help with various ailments, from excessive sleepiness to sleeplessness. “There’s absolutely no evidence that jaguar paste cures anything,” Bruschi says.
While the origin of its use isn’t known, Bruschi believes that jaguar paste is an adaptation of tiger paste, a traditional Vietnamese “medicine” responsible in part for the massive illegal trade of tigers in Southeast Asia. Although tiger paste is primarily a Vietnamese product, it appears that jaguar paste is made by and sold to Chinese.
In Chinese, the word for jaguar basically translates to “American tiger,” and across South America, jaguars are also often called “tigers.” It’s unclear whether Chinese consumers are actively interested in jaguar paste itself, or whether they don’t differentiate between it and tiger paste. It’s also possible that once jaguar paste reaches China, it may falsely be labeled as tiger, according to Bruschi.
THE SUPPLY CHAIN
The process can start in one of two ways. Sometimes a hunter comes across a jaguar or a rancher finds a jaguar stalking his cattle. They could kill the cat and sell it to a middleman for good money. This kind of incidental hunting typically is driven either by fear or by loss of jaguar habitat to ranching, farming, mining, and logging. With less space to hunt for wild prey, the cats are more likely to be tempted by cattle, chicken, and dogs in areas occupied by people.
In addition to these opportunistic forms of jaguar hunting, there’s “kill-to-order,” as Bruschi calls it. That’s when someone in Paramaribo decides he needs a jaguar and puts the word out through his contacts in rural areas that he’s looking to buy. Sometimes the bounty is advertised on social media and by phone, the investigation found, and it can be worth more than a rural person may make in a month.
It can take multiple shots to kill a jaguar and sometimes hours of stalking the wounded animal before the hunter can fire the lethal bullet, the investigation found. If the jaguar has a cub, it may be left for dead or sold into the illegal pet trade.
In Suriname, killing, transporting, buying, selling, even possessing a protected species such as a jaguar is against the law, punishable by up to $134,000 or up to six years in jail, according to Nancy del Prado, an environmental lawyer based in Paramaribo. So getting the jaguar’s body to the capital, where it will be processed, involves a gantlet of transfers, from car to car and safe house to safe house. “It’s constantly kept on the move to frustrate law enforcement,” Bruschi says.
Once the jaguar gets to Paramaribo, it’s usually kept in a Chinese-owned shop. These businesses are less likely to be investigated by law enforcement because the Chinese community wields so much influence, says Els van Lavieren, with the Conservation International Suriname office, where she’s been investigating the trade for the past two years. “The Chinese community here runs all the shops. All the supermarkets are run by Chinese. They’re important in the economy of Suriname.”
The jaguar will be cooked down into paste, which is put into small containers that smugglers pack into carry-on luggage, often alongside Tiger Balm, a strong-smelling ointment commonly used by athletes to soothe muscle pain. The Tiger Balm helps throw airport sniffer dogs off track, according to the World Animal Protection investigation.
“A lot of Chinese people traveling back to China from here are involved in the smuggling,” van Lavieren says. “They’re going back anyway, so they’re taking some [jaguar products] to get some extra cash.”
In China, Bruschi says, the jaguar paste is sold within friend and family networks, though he says he wants to do more work to better understand that side of the trade.
Jaguar teeth—“by far” the most valuable body part, according to Verheij—are also an important part of the trade. They're sold mostly to Chinese, both in Suriname and China, as necklaces. The illegal trade in jaguar canines has also been identified in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America.
The whole process, from beginning to end, is “very sophisticated,” says a Surinamese park ranger, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his ongoing investigation into the trade. “They know exactly what they’re doing.”
WHERE IS LAW ENFORCEMENT?
Vanessa Kadosoe, of the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, who’s doing research on Suriname’s jaguar numbers, worries about what will happen to the forest if jaguars disappear. As an apex predator, jaguars control the populations of herbivores, such as deer and agouti, a type of rodent. Without jaguars preying on the plant eaters, their numbers could explode, which in turn could wipe out plant species and possibly lead to their gobbling up people’s crops. “If you take out the top predators, you’ll have the whole system come tumbling down,” she says.
A remote camera captures a 10-month-old jaguar cub in Brazil’s Pantanal, one of the last bastions of the species. (Read National Geographic magazine's "The Shrinking Kingdom of the Jaguars.")
A reliable estimate of the number of jaguars in Suriname doesn’t yet exist, but evidence suggests that poaching is taking a toll. The park ranger says he gets a call from informants about the shooting of a jaguar roughly every two weeks, and photos of dead jaguars show up on social media with some regularity. And Bruschi says that, anecdotally, certain areas are having fewer jaguar sightings.
“My assessment, based on several sources, is that the number of jaguars killed for their parts in Suriname may amount to well over a hundred on an annual basis,” Verheij says. “It doesn't take a biologist to understand that these numbers are hugely unsustainable.”
“Enforcement is one of the biggest improvements we can make because at the moment there’s so little enforcement going on that people aren’t even afraid to show pictures on Facebook with their guns and jaguars they’ve shot,” van Lavieren says.
It’s unclear how many arrests have been made for charges relating to selling and smuggling jaguar parts. In an email to National Geographic, the representative from the Ministry of Physical Planning, Land, and Forest Management said that they do keep statistics on arrests and convictions that the records aren’t digitized and “it would take some time to extract specific information regarding jaguars.”
In her review of media reports on jaguar-related arrests, Verheij found that most offenders have been let off with a fine—as was the case with the three Chinese men in January—rather than being prosecuted to the fullest extent the law allows. She also says customs controls at the borders should be beefed up and that the government needs to better fund its nature conservation division so it will have the staff, resources, and equipment necessary to do patrols and carry out investigations.
Kadosoe agrees. She wants to see rangers posted on the roads again, doing vehicle checks as they used to in the 1980s. More such monitoring would make some people think twice before illegally transporting a jaguar.
At present, according to the ranger, he and his colleagues are handicapped. He says there’s not even enough fuel for them to go out on patrol, given that they’re each usually allocated only 30 liters—not even a full tank—for each of their three cars for the entire month.
“What can you do with 30 liters of fuel in the forest? You can drive to the airport and come back. You can’t go farther to check out the hunters, the poachers, the logging areas,” he says. “I’m doing this on my own.”
The ministry acknowledges that resources are scarce, but it says patrols do take place. “Our wildlife rangers carry out regular patrols, but there is enormous ground to cover and a relatively limited budget to work with,” the written statement says. It also acknowledges that there’s no specific strategy for jaguar conservation at the moment, though it says some proposals are pending that would specifically address jaguar protections.
The good news is that because most of Suriname is untamed jungle, jaguars still have naturally protected areas—for now. But for a long time Suriname has wanted to build a road straight through the jungle to connect Paramaribo in the north to the border with Brazil in the south, which would open up remote swaths of jaguar habitat.
Already a Chinese company has paved a road part of the way there.