Exposed: The Bolivian prison fuelling the billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade
Prison director openly promotes sales of “fashion items” made by inmates from jaguar skin. World Animal Protection calls for full enforcement of law to protect country’s threatened wildlife
Exclusive film footage by World Animal Protection reveals prisoners in Bolivia are profiting from the illegal wildlife trade by manufacturing “fashion items” made from jaguar skins.
Inmates at Trinidad’s Mocovi Prison are shown, under the noses of prison guards, breaking the very laws that protect the threatened big cat and other endangered species in the South American country.
The footage details how wild animal skins - from threatened jaguar, snakes, caiman and peccary are supplied from hunters and local market vendors who transport the skins to the prison where inmates are paid to produce goods such as wallets, hats, belts and purses from their cells.
Prisoners can produce up to two dozen items over the course of three to four days, earning enough “for daily sustenance”, a prisoner in the film says. The finished products are then bought back by vendors at prices negotiated by the prisoners, transported out of the jail and then sold in local markets, mainly to overseas buyers.
The film - which we have modified to protect identities - exposes a vital cog in the intricate global crime infrastructure facilitating the illegal trade in threatened wildlife in Bolivia, a country seeking to become a recognised haven for one of the world’s most iconic big cats.
The footage, sent to World Animal Protection from an anonymous source and checked for authenticity, shows no evidence of inmates being coerced into the illegal activity – and it validates recent social media posts and a local TV report in which the Director of the prison actively promotes the inmates’ work and illegal wares for sale.
In additional footage, it is confirmed that bulk orders are received from foreign buyers, a claim made by prisoners, corroborated by Campesino market vendors. The vendors sell jaguar fangs and skin, and caiman leather products to resident Chinese buyers, who employ local fixers to help with ordering, purchasing and shipping out of the country.
Bolivia is classed as a transit country, acting as both a major source and bridge for the illegal wildlife trade between Brazil and Peru, though wildlife smuggling occurs across all its borders, which also include Argentina, Chile and Paraguay.
The forests in the San Borja municipality in the northern Beni Department of Bolivia are identified as the prime location for poachers targeting jaguars, which make up the bulk of the illegal body parts supply chain to Mocovi prison.
Under Bolivian law, those caught working in the illegal wildlife trade can face up to six years in prison if convicted. It is not known if any of the prisoners involved in producing the items for the market, are serving a sentence for illegal poaching.
World Animal Protection’s Global Animal Welfare Advisor, Roberto Vieto, said:
“Threatened animals such as the jaguar stand no chance if the very laws to protect them are blatantly ignored or not enforced - even inside jails. “This illegal work is fuelling the growing domestic and international demand for animal body parts, which is driving targeted poaching and illegal trafficking throughout Latin America and threatens conservation efforts.
“Identifying the complex and covert processes and facilitators has proven difficult – until now. This film provides vital evidence for the Bolivian authorities to enforce their own laws to save and protect wildlife, and its international reputation.”
World Animal Protection’s Global Head of Wildlife Research, Neil D’Cruze, said:
“The footage provides important evidence of failing law enforcement and a lack of political will in Bolivia which needs to be urgently addressed to prevent the cruelty of big cat poaching and protect the jaguar.
“But the law alone will not end the illegal wildlife trade. We need to end consumer demand in those countries that exploit these threatened species. We need to have the law working alongside public awareness and behaviour change campaigns.
“Only then can Bolivia and other Latin American nations be championed as safe strongholds for wild jaguar populations and other threatened animals.”
World Animal Protection has alerted the Bolivian Ministry of Environment of this evidence and is calling on the central government to implement a full enforcement of law to protect all wildlife - and especially threatened jaguars.
The damning footage is included in a World Animal Protection/National Geographic-funded film called Jaguar Spirit by NatGeo Explorer director, Emi Kondo.
Note to editors:
Conservation and jaguar protection in Bolivia:
- Bolivia’s Action Plan for the Conservation of the Jaguar, 2020-2025, includes efforts to counter increased trafficking of body parts, through expanding research and knowledge about the species, strengthening regulations and institutions, and educating, raising awareness, and promoting social participation in its protection.
- A Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decision on jaguars was also adopted in August 2019 to encourage the implementation of four main actions aimed at improving habitat conservation, legislation, and enforcement controls to help “eliminate jaguar poaching and illegal trade”. • CITES CoP19 meeting in Panama, 2022, also saw the adoption of a decision to help strengthen the mapping of drivers and impacts of the illegal jaguar trade.
- Regionally, February 2020 saw the inclusion of jaguars in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the strictest protection category, which requires Bolivia to “prohibit the removal of the Jaguar from its natural environment” and prioritise tackling illegal trade, amongst other initiatives.
- Once found from southwestern United States to Argentina, according to the UNEP there are only 64,000 jaguars (Panthera onca) left in the wild, with almost 90 per cent confined to Amazonia, particularly in Brazil.
- In just over two decades, jaguar populations have decreased by up to 25 per cent.