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We Stand For Wildlife – tackling the illegal trade in Belize

Illegal Wildlife and Timber Trafficking is having a devastating effect on many species across the globe. This trade, which can be defined as the illegal gathering, transportation, and distribution of plants and animals (and their parts), is undermining legal local livelihoods, weakening the rule of law, fuelling corruption, and providing revenue for terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates. It is no surprise that it is being increasingly recognized by nations in Africa and Asia as a genuine and growing threat to national security. So, what about Latin America and the Caribbean?

There is considerable concern among international enforcement agencies and NGO’s, including INTERPOL, The Wildlife Conservation Society and TRAFFIC, that previously localized illegal wildlife trade in Latin America and the Caribbean region is replicating the devastating pattern seen in Africa and Asia, and is developing into a major hotspot of international, organized wildlife trafficking. This is particularly alarming, but also predictable, given that this region possesses more than 40% of all the biodiversity on the planet.

Some of the most abundantly trafficked species in the region are also subject to trade to and from Belize. Rosewood is one of the worlds most trafficked species and the species we have here in Belize (Dalbergia stevensoni) is highly sought after on the international market, particularly China. The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) and yellow headed parrot (Amazona oratrix) are still being extracted from their nests for the exotic pet trade, and both are on the edge of extinction. Sharing their plight are both of Belize’s primate species the howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and the spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) similarly demanded by the pet trade. In Belize’s globally famous coastal marine areas, sea cucumber (Holothuridae), queen conch (Strombus gigas) and lobster (Panulirus argus) are the most trafficked species by number.

But we also need to realize that to be illegal trade does not need be international, and those responsible are not always foreigners. Here within Belize there is trade that threatens the survival of some of our most iconic species. These include endangered parrots and howler and spider monkeys, which continue to be demanded for the pet trade and the critically endangered hicatee turtle which despite well-publicized laws designed to protect it from extinction, continues to be severely over-hunted.

The Belize Forest Department is currently distributing information about the seasons in which certain species can be hunted and consumed, and also the licences that need to be obtained that allow an individual to hunt, and/or sell animal products. The Belize Fisheries Department has undertaken extensive awareness raising to inform fishers, restaurants and tourists of the correct seasons for catching and selling marine species. These seasons have been developed for a reason and are intended to provide a safe time and space to ensure these animals are able to renew their populations for the next open season.

Consider the impacts that your choice of food, pet, souvenir or furniture might have on the survival of the population of that plant or animal. If you are unsure whether the bush meat or fish you are considering eating was obtained illegally then ask where it came from.

Why should we care? Without plants and animals humans could not survive. They purify our air, regulate our climate, provide our food source, medicine, building materials and provide the base for many economies, including Belize. One of the most damaging parts of this illegal trade is that it undermines those hardworking Belizeans who are trying to make their living by respecting the rules, the close seasons, the size limits and the quotas. These regulations are designed to ensure that we can keep on enjoying the products of a healthy environment and will only work if everyone respects them.

Wildlife trafficking is becoming more organized, sophisticated and global in its operations and efforts to address it need to become equally transnational and sophisticated in order to respond. The Wildlife Conservation Society is supporting the excellent efforts of the Belize Forest Department and the Belize Fisheries Department in building on existing capacity to ensure that Belizeans are aware of wildlife laws and regulations, that we understand why these laws are necessary and that enforcement is an effective deterrent for those who willfully break the law.

At a recent workshop held by the Wildlife Conservation Society with support from the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, saw more than 40 individuals from Belizes judiciary, prosecution, customs and criminal intelligence and enforcement personnel from key Government departments (Solicitor General, Forest Department, Fisheries Compliance Unit, Police, National Security Council, Customs and Immigration departments, INTERPOL, Magistracy, Financial Intelligence Unit), and representatives from national civil society organizations BELPO (Belize Environmental Law and Policy Organization) and FCD (Friends for Conservation and Development). The passion and commitment to tackling this rapidly growing threat from such an unprecedented diversity of institutions was complemented by the support of Ambassador Moreno of the US Embassy.

By preparing in advance for the growing wave of illegal wildlife and timber trafficking and taking advantage of the ready willingness of all the necessary agencies and institutions Belize has the chance to avoid the devastating losses that have robbed nations in Africa and Asia of their natural resource wealth.

For more details on what the Belize Forest Department is doing about Wildlife and Timber Crime please call 822-2079. (This article was written by Lee McLoughlin, Terrestrial Co-ordinator, WCS Belize Program Officer, Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean.)

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