Mexico's lax laws allow animal trade to run wild Permits are regularly
issued to civilians to keep endangered species as pets
June 19, 2007
MEXICO CITY - When a lion and a Bengal tiger, kept as pets on a factory roof
in a working-class suburb of Mexico City, suddenly attacked and killed their
keeper last week, it came as a shock to most Mexicans. Yet it shouldn't
"There are a lot of lions in Mexico City, and in cities throughout Mexico,"
said Ignacio Loyola, federal prosecutor for Environmental Protection, on
breakfast television the next day.
There are, in fact, 70 lions registered as pets with the Natural Resources
and Environment Secretariat, or Sermarnat. There are also 60 jaguars,
tigers, leopards and pumas, as well as hundreds of other wild specimens.
"There are a lot," Mr. Loyola acknowledged. "... As a result of what
happened in Ixtapalapa, we have received all kinds of complaints [from the
public] about animals in hotels, houses, restaurants and mechanics'
workshops. But they all have authorizations that were issued years ago."
As those complaints suggest, however, many Mexicans are outraged that wild
animals may be kept legally by anyone who applies for permission from
Semarnat. Not only that, but the often sorry state of the creatures is a
symptom of the massive trade in exotic and endangered animals that goes on
in Mexico, both legally and illegally.
"What happened was terrible," said Beatriz Bugeda, Latin America director
for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, "but it didn't surprise me
much. It's just a symptom of a situation that has grown alarmingly over the
past years in Mexico, this trade in exotic animals."
Current Mexican legislation permits the ownership of wild animals, even
those in danger of extinction, as long as they have not been taken from the
wild, Semarnat's wildlife director, Martin Vargas Prieto, said.
Ms. Bugeda calls that "a legal loophole that impedes the authorities from
supervising the conditions in which these animals are living."
Big cats and other exotic wildlife are particularly popular among the
kingpins of the narcotics trade. In 1993, police found a private collection
of 70 such animals when they arrested Joaquin Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel,
all of which ended up in zoos throughout Mexico. They are a status symbol,
said Katya Camarero, wildlife director at the Environmental Protection
Ministry. "The people who acquire them are people with lots and lots of
money, and other illegal practices are often going on there as well."
Worse, along with the proliferation of legal businesses raising wild animals
for sale - from 334 in 1998 to 3,900 today - Mexico's underground wildlife
market is also booming.
While Semarnat grants permission for animals bred from legal enterprises,
its wildlife-protection wing confiscates tens of thousands of species
illegally taken from their habitat every year. Stationed in airports and at
border posts, Semarnat inspectors find the animals - worth millions of
dollars on the international market - packed into boxes or hidden in other
cargo. They confiscated almost 92,000 live specimens last year, up from
almost 87,000 in 2005. But with only 420 inspectors for the entire country,
thousands more animals make it through.
Ms. Bugeda refers to the trade as "practically impossible to quantify," and
estimates that for every live animal shipped successfully for sale abroad,
20 die during the journey.
"There is a very large illegal market," Mr. Prieto admitted. "We carry out a
lot of raids, but now what people do is hide the animals."
At Mexico City's crowded Sonora market, which has been raided many times,
the wildlife is still there, just under wraps, literally.
"You want a macaw?" asked Arturo Gonzalez, reaching for a small cardboard
box. Inside, a three-week old green macaw was just beginning to shed its
down and grow feathers. When asked about the possibility of a rare scarlet
macaw, he said, "How much are the others charging? I can get you one for
$2,000. Unless it's already been sold. I'll have to check," he said.
Down another aisle, thronged with stands selling animals and birds ranging
from goats to guinea fowl, a man calling himself Apache was moving chickens
from one cage to another, but was happy to sell a monkey. Pulling out a
photo album, he said, "I can get you a squirrel monkey for $2,200, and a
mantled howler for $1,200. You tell me what you want and I will deliver the
animal to your home."
Mantled howler monkeys are on the endangered-species list and, like the tiny
macaw, it would have to have been snatched from its habitat.
Ms. Bugeda is hoping that a new bill in Mexico's Congress will make it
harder for people to keep a wild animal in their homes, by enshrining an
animal's right to basic well-being in law.
Mr. Loyola, meanwhile, believes that the killing of the keeper in Ixtapalapa
will dissuade Mexicans from adopting wild animals as pets.
"People know what happened with this lion and tiger, which, unfortunately,
killed a person. We are trying to send out a signal to the population to
abstain from applying for permits."