Postcard from Colombia: turtle and frog smuggler goes to jail

"The illegal wildlife trade is the third biggest form of smuggling from Latin America, after the illegal smuggling of drugs and arms" says a Colombian expert. And now genetic material can be "hidden under your nail".

By | July 6, 2000

Denis González-Ayarza, a citizen of Panama, is about to go to jail in Colombia. He was caught on 12th May at the International Airport in Bogotá, where he was trying to smuggle out 344 'mata-mata' turtles and 195 tiny Dendrobates sp. frogs in his suitcase.

The animals were severely dehydrated. They had been taken from wet, humid conditions in one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world, in the Chocó region. According to Captain Wilson Pardo-Salazar, from the one-year-old Environmental Crimes Investigative Group of the Police Department, each animal would have cost González-Ayarza about US$1, whereas abroad they would fetch US$60-200, a profit of US$30 000-100 000 in one suitcase.

González was convicted of trafficking in wild animal species, an action that the recent Article 242 of the Colombian penal code penalizes with between three and eight years in jail. As soon as the jury decides on González' sentence, "this will become the first case in which Article 242 is applied", said Pardo-Salazar.

Colombia's biological and genetic resources are valued around the world for scientific research and business purposes, which has created a wide national and international trade. Since 1974, when the country issued the National Code for Sustainable Natural Resources and the Protection of the Environment, one of the oldest in the world, Colombia has recognized that something has to be done to prevent wild fauna and flora from extinction. Currently there are almost 40 legal decisions that set regulations for Colombian bioresources, including signature to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES.

Ana María Hernández from the Research Institute on Biological Resources of the Environmental Ministry said that, even though legislation is important, it needs urgently to be implemented in order to reduce 'biopiracy'.

"Biopiracy," she said, "is the illicit trade in both biological and genetic resources; as the biological trade has grown, nowadays even researchers need a license to use national biological resources in their collections."

When it comes to genetic resources, the scene becomes more difficult. "First of all, because you can hide a sample under your nail. Second, because it involves traditional knowledge, and therefore you have to deal also with the indigenous and local communities. Third, because bioprospecting can be very profitable, "argued Hernández.

There have been few access requests for genetic resources before the Environmental Ministry, and none of them has been approved. The best-publicized was the request by Bioandes, a company created in Colombia with North American researchers as partners. They proposed to set up a bioscreening lab in Colombia to research natural products that may be of use in the treatment of cancer. The Ministry rejected the project thee times, according to Eduardo Robayo, president of Bioandes. The proposal was not fully documented in economic or biological issues, according to Milena Gómez, from the Ministry. "We lost approximately US$400 000," complained Robayo; "In Colombia we cannot do this job in a legal way because the law promotes biopiracy," he concluded.

Biopiracy moves a lot of money. According to Javier Cifuentes, from the Reception and Rehabilitation Center for Wild Animals in Bogotá "the illegal wildlife trade is the third biggest form of smuggling from Latin America, after the illegal smuggling of drugs and arms."

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