Smuggling spells disaster for Galapagos isles

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The Independent Online

Government officials, scientists and environmentalists from more than 180 countries will announce their commitment to conservation at the Seventh Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Malaysia this week. But half a world away, in Ecuador, action is desperately needed to protect hundreds of animal and plant species at risk from smugglers.

Ecuador's laws on transporting endangered species are patchy, making smuggling of the valuable ones easier. Last year, its authorities seized 1,521 animal and plant specimens being stolen from the small, mountainous country on the west coast of South America, often by locals aiming to get cash from high-paying foreigners.

But far more were smuggled out, as indicated by figures suggesting that more than 25,000 shark fins and sea cucumbers were taken from the Galapagos Islands - which inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution - 600 miles (1,000km) offshore. The authorities only managed to stop the smuggling of 5,300 shark fins (taken from about 1,200 sharks) and 23,800sea cucumbers.

Bernardo Ortiz, the director of Traffic South America, an international wildlife trade monitoring programme, said: "It's a tiny country, with good roads, weak controls, a lot of corruption and a tremendous diversity of species. So, it's a country that stokes a lot of interest among collectors."

Bigger countries in Latin America, such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru, face more wildlife smuggling than Ecuador. But the latter's size has environmentalists concerned that the impact of rare-species rustlers is greater than elsewhere.

Mr Ortiz said: "It's the country's size that makes it so vulnerable. The impact of the trade exhausts populations much more than in Brazil or Colombia."

Nearly 3,000 kinds of orchids are found in Ecuador and 43 per cent of them are native. Nearly 94 per cent of the plant species smuggled out of Ecuador are orchids. Collectors are willing to pay up to $10,000 (£5,270) for a flower that is nearing extinction and up to $500 for a common variety.

Miguel Vazquez, the research co-ordinator at Ecociencia, the local conservation group, said: "Prices paid abroad are impressive. Here, salesmen pay just $15 or $20, so it's clearly a good business."

Often locals smuggle out animals hoping to make money quickly. The locals are paid less than foreigners, who, in the past, have posed as tourists in Ecuador to illegally transport butterflies and orchids out by plane, authorities said. They hope that conservation will give Ecuador a viable alternative to its main export, crude oil, on which its economy is dependent, by paving the way for ecotourism and scientific research.

Sergio Lasso, the wildlife co-ordinator for the Environment Ministry, said: "This is Ecuador's hope for the future. Once our oil is gone, all we'll have is our biodiversity."