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TED Fellow Juliana Machado Ferreira on Using Science to Combat Brazil’s Illegal Wildlife Trade

The size, diversity, and biological richness of Brazil are things that its citizens and tourists from all over the world treasure. But with so much bounty comes the capacity to exploit it without thinking of the consequences, a capacity illustrated vividly by the illegal wildlife trade that is booming in one of the world’s most important developing nations. Sadly, the same qualities that make Brazil’s natural beauty so enchanting and occasionally intimidating also mean that fighting the illegal wildlife trade there is a war with almost too many fronts to count.


But it is also a fight with a growing number of adherents dedicated to blending cutting edge science and old-fashioned detective work to ensure that Brazil’s awe inspiring bio-diversity and natural richness remains intact. Juliana Machado Ferreira is one of them. Ferreira, currently a PhD candidate at the University of Sao Paulo’s Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology and Vertebrate Conservation working with Professor Joao S. Morgante, is also a TED Senior Fellow whose work focuses on bringing the latest advances in forensic science to bear against “crimes against nature. Her bete noir—and the driving factor behind her research—is the illegal wildlife trade that removes hundreds of thousands of animals, primarily birds, from Brazil’s ecosystem every year.


“Brazil is very, very big, and there are many different kinds of illegal trade,” Ferreira says, pointing out that there are markets for illegal animals that cater to tourists looking for intriguing exotic pets, others that sell to people looking for animals for religious purposes, and still others that provide specimens illegally for scientific research and other pursuits. Ferreira is working to battle the illegal trade that’s closest to her home and heart, the bustling domestic market for pets taken from the wild, a cultural phenomenon with a long history in the country. 


“Since Brazil has been Brazil, there has been this very strong cultural habit to own animals.” says Ferreira. “People love to have birds, they like to have caged birds, songbirds. They like to have beautiful animals, like parrots and macaws, and on a smaller scale reptiles, lizards, snakes, small mammals, but birds are by far the favorite. The important thing is that in the pet trade, they like to have wild animals.”


This phenomenon results in animals being pillaged by the thousands from around the rural areas that dot Brazil’s vast tracts of wilderness areas and sold at outdoor fairs in urban centers. “For the pet trade… the animals are taken mainly from the northeast and center west of Brazil…and they are transported especially to the southeast…they take a truck, put 4,000 birds inside, and they drive for days…and they distribute these animals in small deposits of 600 birds in small houses, and then these animals are sold in small fairs,” Ferreira explains. “These are illegal animals, and in one fair in one day, you can see around 600 animals. If you think that we have many of these fairs, all over the southeast, [especially around the urban centers of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro] and you start to do the math, it’s very significant.”


In a country as biologically rich and ecologically diverse as Brazil, a dearth of wild animals is something that few people think or care to worry about. This is an outlook that plays into the hands of those who make their living ransacking rural areas for animals to sell as pets. But Ferreira makes the scale of the problem abundantly clear—as thousands upon thousands of wild birds are removed from their habitats every month to be sold as pets in urban areas, the effect on the ecosystems they once inhabited can be grim indeed. While a taken bird may go on singing in a gilded cage in suburban Sao Paulo, the ecosystem it was removed from reacts as if the animal was dead. “The problem with taking animals from nature is that once you take them from nature, they’re not going to be reproducing any more, so they’re not going to be passing on their genes to the next generation, which means they’re going to be genetically dead,” explains Ferreira. “They’re not going to be fulfilling their biological functions, meaning they’re not going to be dispersing seeds, they’re not going to be predating, they’re not going to be prey, they’re not going to be laying eggs to be predated, so they’re biologically dead.”


Not unlike working against drug traffickers, fighting the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil ultimately means reducing demand for the illegal products that trade provides. “I strongly believe in the law of markets—if there are people willing to buy, there are people willing to sell. So…we have to teach people why they shouldn’t be buying these animals.” Overall, Ferreira is enthusiastic about the prospects of education programs going forward. “I do believe that the next generations are really growing up listening about biodiversity and conservation and ecosystems, and I think that in the long term, people will learn that they shouldn’t do this.” But educating people, she is quick to point out, is just one aspect of what should be quite a varied toolkit. “Education takes too long,” Ferreira says. “So in parallel, we have to work with enforcement.” Which is where Ferreira really starts to shine.


In spite of the potentially grave ecological implications that accompany it, illegally trading animals in Brazil remains a minor crime, punishable only by fines that represent a pittance when compared to the considerable sums brought in by animal dealers. “We’re not just talking about people that are selling animals to survive. That’s not the reality,” says Ferreira. “We’re talking about dangerous people, about organized crime,” Ferreira says. “The illegal wildlife trade in Brazil is considered a minor offense, a misdemeanor, so it’s highly lucrative, and if the guys are caught, they will pay no more than $70, tops, and sign a paper and they will be free,” complains Ferreira, growing noticeably agitated as she discusses the situation. “You buy thousands of animals for thirty cents each, and sell them for $50, and if you get caught, nothing happens? It’s highly profitable.”


For dealers, that is. On the supply side, authorities are often willing to look the other way when animals are taken from rural areas where capturing birds for illegal sale may be the only means of support for whole families who make very little from the work. At the end of the day, the people taking these animals from their habitats and selling them to dealers for urban market may be one of the best weapons against this illegal trade. “We have the guy taking the animals from nature – this guy sells the animals very cheaply to the dealer, and the dealer is going to transport the animals and sell them in Sao Paulo. So the dealer is actually the guy who is committing the worst crime,” says Ferreira. “We have to work with the people who are taking animals from nature, and try to turn them to our side…and show them that the animals there in nature will be more valuable to them…if we can hire them to work as tour guides, as bird watching guides,” says Ferreira. “We have to work with local people so that they have an alternative which is not just an alternative that lets them survive, but live a decent life.”


Enforcing laws and providing alternatives in the rural areas that represent the heart of Brazil’s booming industry in illegal wildlife trade is of vital importance for the health of the animals involved and the areas they are taken from. If you can get animals before they have been too far removed from their region of origin, says Ferreira, “…it’s so much easier to return the animals to where they were seized…Once they are transported and they are in captivity, they are away from their origins, they are in a different biome, they can contract all sorts of diseases in captivity, so the release process is much more difficult. If you seize the animals right on the spot where they were taken, it’s much easier to release them.”


The release and rehabilitation process is one of the most complex and thorny issues facing Ferreira and her colleagues as they work to stem the tide of wildlife poaching in Brazil. “This is a very, very complicated subject, so we have to be careful here,” Ferreira begins. Part of this reason for this complication is the fact that rehabilitating and reintroducing the thousands of animals that are seized from illegal trade is a huge project in which every animal has to be treated individually. “We have to make it clear that we have here both a conservation problem and an animal protection problem. We are worried about the conservation of evolutionary process of nature, but we’re worried about the well being of the individual as well. These things are very different, and the approaches are very different.”


Just as different as these approaches are the individual animals that have to be treated and, in a perfect world, returned to something approaching their original home. “The ideal,” says Ferreira, “would be to know how the populations are divided inside that species, meaning that if we have…the same species and different genetic populations, you do not want to release a bird from one genetic population into another population. If you do this to groups of, for example, 200 animals you may have a problem called outbreeding depression, which is the opposite of inbreeding depression. This is where you mix genes [from animals] that kind of evolved differently, but are still of the same species, and the resulting generations may be a little weaker.”


While this may seem like a minor concern, over the course of generations, it has the potential to wreak havoc on local populations and even whole species. Ferreira elaborates on the potential problems this could bring about: “Imagine a species that has it’s occurrence all over Brazil, and I take a group of animals from the Brazilian desert and I release them in the forest. Even if it’s the same species, they may be adapted to the seasons in the desert and not in the forest… Also, they have different gene pools. The genes in one group were naturally selected to work well together, and the other ones the same, and when you mix these, you have things not working properly. This may be a problem. It may not be a problem – we don’t have the means to predict, we can just infer.”


As with so many large scale ecological problems, it’s difficult to foresee exactly what may come to pass, which presents researchers with the dilemma of not being able to say exactly how bad things will get until it may already be too late. It’s a common obstacle that Ferreira is determined to avoid. “What I would like to do…is to develop protocols and infer these origins,” Doing this means looking at very subtle changes in an animals particular genetics that could provide Ferreira and other scientists clues as to where it initially hailed from. “I may not have an exact origin, but I’ll have a big region… Then the police can tell me ‘This guy that we caught, we know he has family in that city.’ So if we add information – if we use scientific information and police intelligence, then we can narrow it down to be safe enough.”


Ferreira’s long view on the matter is a pragmatic one, and perhaps a bit surprising for that. She wears a passion for her work on her sleeve, and when she says that she’s wanted to save the world since she was a kid, one gets the sense that she’s only kind of kidding. But her idealism is tempered with an understanding of the size of the problem she’s facing and the knowledge that her work, at its best, can provide one more tool to apply to a problem that many people are working to solve.  “What I think is most important in my PhD work is that we are helping to establish the use of science in crimes against nature. This is a movement, and there are other groups and universities trying to work with similar issues.”


One of the contributions Ferreira would like to make to this movement is the eventual founding of a forensics laboratory in Brazil dedicated to combating crimes against nature. “This lab would do something similar to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics lab in Ashland [Oregon],” says Ferreira, who has worked at the lab in the past, “which is to process evidence from crimes involving wildlife, and try to come up with data to help the legal process.” Ferreira envisions the project as a small, independent facility, working in something akin to an expert witness role in the prosecution of crimes like illegal wildlife trading. “It has to be independent enough so that it’s not that I’m analyzing evidence and trying to make some guy look guilty, but that I’m analyzing evidence from a crime scene and letting the prosecutor know what I’ve found,” says Ferreira. “I don’t want to prosecute someone, I just want to [provide] scientific data as impartially as I can.”


But rather than resting on their laurels analyzing data, Ferreira has a vision for a lab that is also producing valuable scientific research of its own. “I think it is very important that a lab like this conduct research,” she says. “We cannot wait for the academic world to feed us their research… It takes too long to have results. I think a lab like this has to be a forensics lab, but it also has to produce its own science and its own research.”


But as Ferreira continues her work, she is also finding allies in existing organizations, including glimmers of hope from within federal police, which could be a good sign for more critical attention being given to environmental crimes in the future. “In Brazil, we are a mega-diverse country, and we are seriously over-exploited,” Ferreira explains. “Crimes against nature are still considered minor offenses, and many times we are not even able to prosecute the criminal because of lack of evidence, because of lack of will, and I think that with scientific data… maybe we can start to prosecute crimes against nature in a more serious way.”


But prosecuting is only part of the fight, and Ferreira bemoans the fact that Brazilians have thus far been more interested in investing in pounds of cure rather than ounces of prevention – a troubling outlook shared with too many nations across the world. “People in Brazil like to fix things. We like to regenerate a forest after it’s been cut down. I think we have to prevent. And if we start prosecuting crimes against nature and wildlife in a more serious way, with scientific data and a technical approach, then…these won’t be seen as minor offenses. If you have a scientific expert, it brings more attention and more seriousness. And we should have started doing this yesterday.”


To learn more about the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil and what you can do to stop it, visit www.sosfauna.org.

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