If you want to know why jaguars are disappearing from the wild in the Americas, you have to look further afield for an answer. China, to be more precise.
The iconic big cats are being killed for their fangs and other body parts so they can be used in traditional Chinese medicine, conservationists say.
China’s mighty economic influence has reached across the planet all the way into Central and South America where the communist nation is a major investor in countries with almost $306 billion worth of investments in 2018 alone. Chinese-owned companies have been investing heavily in the region’s countries by building their infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports and pipelines.
“Essentially, these projects act like giant vacuum cleaners of wildlife that suck everything back to China,” observes Vincent Nijmana, a conservation researcher of Oxford Brookes University.
That is because dodgy operators from the Asian nation have also gained access to the continent’s exotic animas via the illegal global wildlife trade, much of which can be traced to consumers back in China.
“These projects are manned by Chinese workers and they go back and forth with local people and also send things back to their families in China,” Nijman explains. “Among the things they send back are illicit bones, horns and skin valued by traditional medicine. There is not much sign of them using restraint. At the end of the day, almost anything that can be killed and traded will be.”
The body parts of exotic animals such as tigers, rhinos and pangolins are believed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to have curative properties. Such atavistic and unscientific beliefs have been a scourge on exotic wildlife around the planet from Southeast Asia to Africa to South America.
Tiger bones, for example, are grinded into powder before being mixed with other ingredients. The mixture is consumed by people who believe that the resultant potion has potent medicinal properties.
Tigers in the wild are on their last legs throughout their remaining ranges with the overall number of the majestic predators standing at far fewer than 5,000, as opposed to an estimated 100,000 a mere century ago. With the population of tigers having plummeted, illegal wildlife smugglers are turning to other top-level predators like jaguars as alternatives.
Nijman and other researchers who study wildlife trafficking in Latin American countries have just published a paper in the journal Conservation Biology in which they examined factors such as rates of corruption, level of Chinese investments and citizen’s incomes in 19 countries in Central and South America. Their results show that in countries that have higher rates of corruption and Chinese private investments but lower incomes per capita, there have been far higher numbers of jaguar seizures than in other countries.
“Around 34% (32 of 93) of the jaguar‐part seizure reports were linked with China, and these seizures contained 14‐fold more individuals than those intended for domestic markets,” the researchers explain. “Source countries with relatively high levels of corruption and Chinese private investment and low income per capita had 10–50 times more jaguar seizures than the remaining sampled countries.”
Thaís Morcatty, a wildlife researcher at Oxford Brookes University, points out that many confiscations of jaguar parts have been related to illegal wildlife markets in Asia. “Last year, there were more than 50 seizures of packages that contained jaguar parts in Brazil,” Morcatty says. “Most of them appear to have been destined for Asia and China in particular. It is also worth noting there are major Chinese communities in Brazil.”
During the 20th century, jaguars were almost driven into extinction as demand for their pelts and other body parts were very high. Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts, the population of the top-level carnivores has slowly been recovering so that there are now an estimated 64,000 jaguars roaming in the wild today.
Yet jaguars continue to face a variety of threats throughout their ranges from habitat loss and forest fragmentation to retaliatory killings by people over their attacks on livestock. The illicit trade in jaguar parts is now adding greatly to the plight of these majestic creatures.