The largest wild cats in America on the runway to extinction

Silvana Gomez by Silvana Gomez | Jun 22, 2021

Jaguars (Panthera onca), the largest wild cat in America and third in the world, are generally found in rainforests, dense swamplands and wetlands, but can also live in drier habitats. Their territory, now reduced by 40%, used to cover from what is now the USA to North Patagonia in Argentina. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of threatened species, wildlife trafficking, illegal hunting, deforestation and loss of wild prey are driving them from a near threatened status to a vulnerable status, one step closer to extinction.

Jaguars are recognized as a migratory species, an emblematic species of the Americas, and a symbol of the fight against wildlife trafficking. Strength, stealth walking, excellent hunting ability, and remarkable speed made them part of multiple Amerindian peoples’ legends. Nowadays, these attributes make them a target for communities and wildlife traffickers. Like tigers (Panthera Tigris), they are perceived as a threat or are used as pets, trophies, luxury items, or medicine.

Jaguars and jaguars’ parts in wildlife trafficking

The 2020 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Pandemics Workshop Report identified the illegal wildlife trade as the primary threat to Jaguars in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region. Unfortunately, the jaguar’s inclusion on CITES Appendix I since 1975 has not prevented the rise in the international and domestic illegal trade of jaguar parts, including fangs, claws, skins, and bones for ornamental or medicinal use. Between 2012 and 2018, seizures of jaguars increased 200 times and the current global pandemic, with the lack of tourists and park rangers that are left out of work, has increased poaching.

The IUCN Red List assessment group indicated in 2018 that jaguars are used as a replacement for tiger bone by the Asian community in LAC for traditional medicine purposes. This finding is reiterated in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s World Wildlife Crime Report 2020, highlighting the increasing use of jaguar as a substitute for tiger parts, including canines. From January 2012 to March 2018, over 1,900 jaguar canines’ seizures were reported, from which 52,34% were linked with China. The majority were trafficked in Bolivia through the postal system and some in personal luggage’s at airports.

Wildlife traffickers exploit the increasing connectivity of international and interregional aviation – targeting global and domestic hubs and flight routes between source and demand countries. According to the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership Runway to Extinction report, Mexico saw an increase in big cat trafficking between 2016 and 2018. One of the instances involved a seizure in March 2018 of a tiger cub and a jaguar cub at a Mexican Airport after being trafficked domestically via air freight using inconsistent, illegible, and incomplete documents. In Peru, local journalists found five jaguar skulls, five pelts, 44 fangs, and 70 claws in a market where vendors confirmed the high demand for jaguar products and buyers smuggling their purchases in international flights.

Wildlife trafficking prevention and airports sustainable recovery

During the current pandemic, as presented by ROUTES in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) guidance document for the aviation industry, now also available in Spanish; it is important to remember wildlife trafficking prevention commitments and actions, not only support life on land (SDG 15)  and life below water (SDG 14), but also partnering (SDG 17) to fight against this criminal activity (SDG 18), contributes to global good health and well-being (SDG 3), helping reduce the risk of zoonotic disease spread.

ACI World, the only global trade representative of the world’s airports, member of the United for Wildlife (UfW) Transport Taskforce, and  ROUTES Partnership, is committed to taking steps to prevent wildlife products’ illegal carriage, protecting biodiversity and helping prevent the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

After more than five years of working together on wildlife trafficking prevention, awareness-raising, and training for airports worldwide, ACI and its ROUTES partners are expanding efforts into the LAC region. The recent ROUTES report Taking Off: Wildlife Trafficking in the Latin American Region, identified linkages to international trafficking networks and over 60 unique species trafficked from 2010 to 2020 among birds, reptiles, and marine species dominating the illegal trade in the LAC aviation sector.

The illegal wildlife trade represents a threat to all regions. ACI World members are invited to draw from the experience of other airports, by joining the ACI World and UfW taskforces and adopting the ACI World/ROUTES materials.

ACI World and UfW taskforces
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Silvana Gomez

Silvana Gomez

Manager, Wildlife Trafficking Prevention, ACI World
Silvana is specialized in aviation and space law and has an extensive legal, research, and administrative background. She joined ACI World in January 2020 and manages ACI's portfolio on Wildlife Trafficking Prevention. Her responsibilities include managing the ACI World Environment Standing Committee (WEnSC), Wildlife Taskforce Environment Department, and managing the implementation of USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership activities and objectives.
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