Panama cracks down on illegal animal trafficking
ANCON, Panama (AP) — In a rainforest next to the Panama Canal, two black-handed spider monkeys swing around their wire-mesh enclosure, balanced by their long tails. They arrived at this government rehabilitation center after environmental authorities seized them from people who kept them as pets.
In the coming months, biologists and veterinarians will feed them a diet that mirrors what they would eat in the wild, help them relearn how to survive in the jungle, and wean them off human contact.
Panamanian authorities are trying to educate the public about the dangers — to humans and wildlife — of keeping wild animals in their homes. This month, Panama hosted the World Wildlife Conference, where participants voted to tighten restrictions on international trade in animals and plants.
The black-handed spider monkeys are listed in the category of international most endangered species, and the Panamanian Ministry of the Environment has declared them to be « critically endangered ». Trade in monkeys is only permitted in exceptional circumstances.
« People don’t understand that they can’t buy a wild animal from someone who doesn’t have permission to sell it, » said Felipe Cruz, an environment ministry adviser on environmental crimes. “The environment can’t take it anymore. We are at a critical point.
From January to September, Panama’s Attorney General’s Office recorded 19 cases of wildlife trafficking and 14 cases of extraction of protected or endangered species. Environment Department adviser Shirley Binder said the true extent of the problem could be greater.
« The country is big, there might be cases that we don’t have, » Binder said. « We have formed strategic alliances with security sectors that are now aware of the environmental issue, … but we also need the support of citizens in general so that when they see these cases, they report them. »
Earlier this year the government introduced a catalog with photographs and technical details to help identify the most commonly trafficked species. The plan was to distribute it to security authorities, borders and customs throughout the country.
Panamanian law strictly limits the possession of wild animals. The Ministry of the Environment issues permits for zoos, breeding centers or for the breeding and consumption of certain protein sources such as deer and iguanas, but not for endangered species.
Biologist Samuel Sucre operates one such business, Natural Tanks, which holds government permits to collect amphibians and reptiles from the wild and breed them for sale.
Sucre said the government had shut down some « ghost farm » operations.
“These farms claimed they raised frogs, but in reality they were just collecting them from the field and then claiming they were raised (on) their farm,” Sucre said.
« The problem with illegal trade in countries like mine, developing countries, people don’t understand the value of this resource, » Sucre said. People who want to sell animals go to people in rural areas who have very little income and offer payment per frog.
Instead, he advocates finding sustainable ways to market certain species so that people can learn the value of natural resources and earn a living.
Spider monkeys are among the most popular wild pets, said Erick Núñez, national biodiversity chief for the Department of the Environment. « They are generally friendly with people…however, when they reach the age of sexual maturity, when they get jealous, they can become aggressive and attack people, » he said. « It’s the natural behavior of the species when stressed. »
Primates can adapt relatively well to life with humans, which makes their rehabilitation particularly difficult, he said.
The government’s new rehabilitation center, which was built on land adjacent to former US military installations, began receiving animals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Animals move in and out, but it can hold up to 50 animals and there are plans to expand.
Primates like spider monkeys are among the most frequent arrivals, but the center also receives feline species like ocelots and jaguarundi, and birds like toucans and owls.
The two spider monkeys who arrived separately this year have long rehabilitations ahead of them. “They are animals that are very accustomed to human presence,” Núñez said. “We only come here once a day to bring food. Contact with us is very rare.
For now, they feed them fruits like papaya and mango, but biologists also harvest fruits from the jungle. As they get closer to being released, their diet will shift away from fruits that they wouldn’t find in the wild, where they would also eat leaves and even eggs from birds’ nests. Biologists will hide their food in the enclosure « to awaken that wild, natural instinct, » Núñez said.
They will only be reintroduced into the wild after a thorough evaluation by the centre’s biologists and specialists from non-governmental organisations. The monkeys will have to show that they can find their food and recognize other members of their species.
Núñez said people still regard monkeys as good pets, an attitude he says is « unfair and inappropriate ».
Kathia Martinez, Associated Press