Operating with seeming impunity, wildlife traffickers are now targeting jaguars in South America as the demand for the big cats’ fangs grows in China and other parts of Asia, fueled in part by the rising number of big Chinese construction projects in the region.
Reported on in Nature, two examples of dead jaguars found near such projects only seems to back up what many now fear. An adult jaguar was found floating in a drainage ditch, largely intact but missing its fangs. Just two weeks later “a second cat — this time, an ocelot that may have been mistaken for a young jaguar — turned up headless in the same channel,” writes Nature's Barbara Fraser.
There has long been a domestic market for jaguar parts among Latin American collectors, who value the big cats' skulls, teeth, and skins. But it is the recent expansion of the Chinese interest into this trade, mainly for traditional medicine purposes, that has really worried conservationists working in South America.
The increase in poaching of jaguars is thought to be linked to an increase in construction projects being carried out by the Chinese. Experts have been grimly documenting the uptick in wildlife trafficking that is never far behind the these projects, driven by the fact that Chinese workers can easily send or take objects home, as well as the crackdown on tiger parts causing traders to look for big cat body parts, including lion and leopard, in other parts of the world.
“If there’s a demand [in China] for large-cat parts, and that demand can be fulfilled by people living in parts of Africa, other parts of Asia or South America, then someone will step in to fill that demand,” explained Oxford Brookes University’s Vincent Nijman, to Nature. “It’s often Chinese-to-Chinese trade, but it’s turning global.”
This is causing a rapidly growing concern among conservationists working all around the globe. Chinese construction projects, from building highways in Angola to bridges in Tanzania, are becoming increasingly common in developing countries, as the Asian nation hammers out deals with governments to provide infrastructure builds in exchange for mining rights and trading opportunities. Reports such as this latest one on the trade in jaguar parts suggest that there are hidden costs to these deals.
Between August 2014 and February 2015 in Bolivia alone, eight packages on their way to China containing 186 jaguar fangs were confiscated, while a further eight packages are thought to have been stopped in Bolivia in 2016, and a single package containing a shocking 120 fangs was intercepted when it reached China. It is estimated that this might represent up to 100 individual jaguars, most likely just a tiny fraction of what is being shipped across the Pacific.
Jaguars used to roam from the southern United States all the way down to southern Paraguay, but deforestation coupled with killings by cattle farmers has seen their numbers fall to as few as 60,000 animals. It now seems that the cats are having to face a new and growing threat in the form of poachers.