Ask An Amazon Expert: What It Will Take to Stop Wildlife Trafficking

Ask An Amazon Expert: What It Will Take to Stop Wildlife Trafficking

Juliana Machado Ferreira discusses the damage wildlife trafficking is causing the people, plants, and animals of the Amazon region.


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Biology, Ecology


juliana machado video

Photograph courtesy Juliana Machado Ferreira, National Geographic

Illegal wildlife trade—the trafficking of wild plants, animals, and the products derived from them—is a multibillion-dollar global industry. The World Wildlife Fund even ranks it as the second-biggest contributor to species loss (after habitat destruction).

This illegal trade is a huge issue facing the Amazon River region, where National Geographic Emerging Explorer Juliana Machado Ferreira and her colleagues at Freeland Brasil are helping authorities crack down on poaching and wildlife trafficking.

We caught up with Juliana to learn more about what’s fueling illegal wildlife trade and why she’s optimistic about a turnaround.

NG: Illegal wildlife trafficking is a global issue, but why is it particularly important for the Amazon basin?

JMF: Illegal wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. It’s essentially mining biodiversity.

But because it’s an illicit activity, it’s very difficult to estimate the scale of wildlife trafficking. The only estimate we have suggests that all the different types of wildlife trafficking, combined, withdraws 38 million animals—without counting fish or invertebrates—every year in Brazil alone. But this is a conservative estimate. The consumer markets for wildlife products and live animals are huge and growing worldwide.

When we consistently take from nature we disrupt a very delicate biological balance. This affects the environment and our everyday lives in ways that most people don’t think about.

What are some of the ways wildlife trafficking impacts people’s everyday lives that they might not realize?

Wildlife trafficking creates the type of ripple effects that can eventually collapse the ecosystems we rely on.

For instance, imagine that we decide to withdraw from an ecosystem beautifully singing birds to be our pets. Now imagine that these birds prey on insects. If these birds are missing from the environment, the insect population is going to explode, and could become a pest to nearby agriculture. Their predators are also going to decline because their food is gone. Now imagine that these birds disperse the seeds of the trees in this ecosystem or they’re pollinators for other plants. With the birds gone, fewer new trees and plants will grow and the entire ecosystem is compromised.

Also, imagine that we are withdrawing from the environment the biggest, strongest, most beautiful birds. That means we are removing the birds with the genetic characteristics that made them attractive in the first place. So future generations won’t have those traits. Finally, if we are taking several birds from one species, we’re leaving behind fewer birds to reproduce. In time, the offspring will be more inbred, making the entire population susceptible to disease, which could even cause species loss.

All of this can mean huge consequences for the overall ecosystem because everything is so interrelated. This ripple effect can eventually collapse the ecosystem and affect our agriculture, water supply, soil quality, and the resources we get.

What drives illegal wildlife trade?

This industry is being supported because there is a consumer market. If people are willing to buy, someone is going to be willing to harvest and then sell these wildlife products. Most people buying the products or the animals are not aware that it’s illegal. Also, many people are not aware why something is not legal or they don’t understand the scale of the problem. They say, “well I’m just buying one bird,” but they forget that it’s millions of people just buying one bird.

What are the specific challenges in dealing with wildlife trafficking in the Amazon?

Everything about the forest—its size, how difficult it is to move through, how hot and humid it is—makes law enforcement that much harder. As well as the fact that it crosses so many political borders. Nature doesn’t know political boundaries, and certainly neither do poachers. So why should we work against them using political boundaries?

Illegal logging for timber is probably the biggest challenge in the Amazon right now. There are even estimates that most timber consumed in the south of Brazil—in the big cities like São Paulo and Rio—comes from illegal sources in the Amazon.

Another challenge is biopiracy. The indigenous communities of the Amazon have incredible knowledge of how to use plants and animals for medicine and cosmetics. Industries are exploiting this knowledge to earn millions of dollars and none of it goes toward protecting the forest or makes its way back to the communities that supplied that knowledge in the first place.

What makes you optimistic about the future of the Amazon and curbing illegal wildlife trade worldwide?

I have never heard as much about wildlife trafficking in the mainstream media as I do now. Consumers are little by little becoming aware that they should be looking for some kind of certification of origin for the products they buy. We are seeing more products—especially timber—with some kind of certified origin, and it’s because consumers are starting to call for it. But we still need more of this.

Also, I think that governments are finally understanding their responsibility in addressing environmental issues. Before, if you started talking about wildlife trafficking or illegal timber, they called you a crazy tree-hugger and no one listened. But with climate change and this huge drought in São Paulo getting a lot of attention in Brazil, the government is realizing that it has to act.

I love that the world is focusing on the Amazon. All of this international attention can help keep our government honest and help us protect the forest.

Fast Fact

Feeling Forest Loss at the Bank
Deforestation isn’t just costing the plants and animals that live in it, it’s hurting Brazil’s economy. Analysis from Brazilian conservationist group Imazon finds that drought in the country’s southeast—fundamentally linked to forest loss in the Amazon—cost Brazilian farmers more than $6 billion.

Fast Fact

Stopping Poachers in Their Tracks
“Nature doesn’t know political boundaries, and certainly neither do poachers. So why should we work against them using political boundaries?”

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Ryan Schleeter
National Geographic Society
Jessica Shea, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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Related Resources

The BIO Program at the Inter-American Development Bank
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation