Over 8,700 birds and other animals have been seized - and 4,000+ people arrested - in what appears to be a large-scale crackdown on the black market Latin American bird trade. The arrests and seizures were conducted between April and June of this year, as part of INTERPOL's "Operation Cage."
Among the animals seized were not only parrots commonly bought in the U.S., but fish, turtles, mammals, and elephant ivory. Also confiscated were guns, ammunition, and trapping equipment.
Operation Cage was launched in order to combat the multi-billion-dollar illegal pet trade, focusing in particular on the trans-border trade of captive bred and wild birds in Latin America, which is increasingly backed by large organized crime networks.
The black market for exotic birds has made a very negative impact on native bird populations in Central and South America, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Union notes that about 100 of the world's 350 parrot species are now threatened with extinction, for two major reasons: habitat loss, and unlawful capture as part of the illegal pet trade.
"Operation Cage once again clearly demonstrates the global scale of the problem of the illegal trade in birds and other wildlife," said David Higgins, manager of INTERPOL's Environmental Crime Program.
"The criminals invoved in this illicit trade have no concern for the welfare of these birds and mammals, or that many of the species being trafficked are endangered. The only concern they have is for the profit they make."
Though many people who purchase exotic birds as pets - particularly in the U.S. - are unaware of the often-illegal process through which the animals were obtained, the exotic bird trade has recently come into the spotlight.
Last month, actor Jesse Eisenberg worked with the Humane Society to raise awareness about the problem, remarking, "The demand for these intelligent, complex creatures is decimating the wild parrot species. If an animal's natural home is in the wild, chances are that's where it belongs."
The Humane Society, meanwhile, is also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of Operation Cyberwild, which targeted unlawful animal trafficking conducted over the Internet. By making online purchases of illegal animal items, investigators were able to locate and charge a dozen sellers with wildlife crimes.
"Most Americans would be shocked at the sheer volume of illegal wildlife items readily available online," said Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the Humane Society. "This crackdown sends a strong message to would-be traffickers that the wanton exploitation of wildlife won't be tolerated."
Speaking more specifically on the Latin America problem, American Bird Conservancy president Dr. John Fenwick said, "The capture and illicit trade of birds has particularly impacted threatened birds because their rarity yields higher demand and higher black market prices for the trappers and traders. In addition to the impact of collecting on wild populations, the illegal trade causes tremendous suffering to individual birds, with many dying during transportation."
Operation Cage involved interventions and raids at sites including airports, postal services, markets, pet stores, and taxidermists across Central and South America.
As the general public seems to become increasingly aware of the illegal pet trade, initiatives like Operation Cage and Operation Cyberwild are still gathering data which will be utilized for further investigations and interventions.
Photo: Birds recovered as part of Operation Cage. Ecowatch/INTERPOL