MANAGUA – Their mouths tied shut, legs tied together and arms bound behind their backs like torture victims, hundreds of iguanas are stacked one atop another on grimy counters in Managua’s Oriental Market.
One squirms in desperation and falls off the pile of captive reptiles. His once-regal looking spikes deformed from the weight of other iguanas heaped upon him, he convulses epileptically on the counter next to a butcher’s knife and a bowl full of pink iguana guts.
The capture and sale of iguanas in Nicaragua is illegal, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for dozens of families who sell the protected reptile deep in the heart of this sprawling marketplace.
Alongside counters teaming with iguanas, which are bought mostly to be consumed as food, stacks of trafficked turtle eggs and clams are on display and for sale.
“Merchandise” that’s not available can be custom ordered. An exotic bird vendor named Martín says he can make a phone call to a poacher in Chontales who will pluck an endangered Great Green McCaw from the rainforest for $600.
The illegal animal trade in Nicaragua is thriving. Animal trafficking is considered a $20 billion annual industry, the most lucrative black market trade after arms and drugs, according to the Brazil-based Network to combat Wild Animal Trafficking.
And in Nicaragua, an impoverished country with a wealth of biodiversity – the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) estimates some 7 percent of the world’s wildlife species are represented here – traffickers ply their trade in open-air markets, restaurants, gas station parking lots and intersections, where they sell animals to passing motorists.
While there is a push to give Nicaraguan law more teeth to punish animal traffickers, environmentalists here agree that enforcement needs to be improved first.
“Our penal code orders jail time for all traffickers of our wildlife,” said legislator Carlos García, head of the National Assembly’s Environmental Commission. “But environmental authorities argue they don’t have the economic or technical capacity to cover the entire country.”
Environment officials say they’re doing the best they can with meager resources to crack down on the illicit trade. Gilberto Paez, a Managua delegate for MARENA, says officials seized record numbers of trafficked animals last year, mostly at highway checkpoints along trafficking thoroughfares.
“It’s a tough job,” said Paez, adding that environmental officials have received threats while patrolling the marketplaces and have a hard time getting police support for raids, which is why they tend to stay away from the markets.
“They’ll slice an environment official with a machete in the Oriental Market. They have to be very prepared to go in there,” said Dr. Eduardo Sacasa, head of the National Zoo, which houses a rescue center for trafficked animals.
Despite the dangers of enforcing animal-trafficking laws, Paez claims officials have slowly been strangling traffickers by seizing their “merchandise” at highway checkpoints leading into the capital. Also, he said, MARENA has been receiving tips of illegal activity from the controversial Citizen Power Councils (CPCs).
In 2008, government officials boasted seizures of 500 exotic birds, 700 iguanas, 28,000 conchas negras (clams) and 20,000 turtle eggs. Paez insists those are record numbers, though he can’t provide statistics from previous years, as statistics on animal trafficking are alarmingly scarce in Nicaragua. Regardless, the seizures are having an impact, he says.
“Traffickers of endangered species are finding other ways to get their daily bread,” he told The Nica Times in an interview at MARENA headquarters in Managua.
Paez says Nicaragua has come a long way since 2007, when several national lawmakers were photographed on the front page of a local daily newspaper scarfing down turtle eggs. As a form of repentance, some of those legislators later supported the launch of the Sandinista government’s “I don’t eat turtle eggs” campaign, in which the slogan was slapped across posters and T-shirts to raise awareness.
But José Urteaga director of Flora and Fauna International’s turtle protection program, says a culture of apathy toward animal trafficking persists. He notes that the daily El Nuevo Diario recently ran a classified ad for a person looking to illegally sell monkeys. Urteaga and other animal rights activists responded with a fiery editorial that was published in the paper.
“I’m sure most people know there’s a law that protects those species, but no actions are taken and the government is very weak in enforcement, so people keep doing it,” he said.
According to the Environmental Commission’s García, environmental authorities are drawing up a new law that would provide for tougher punishments for animal traffickers – up to five years in jail.
Zoo director Sacasa is a staunch supporter of the bill, which has been recently held up due to the government’s institutional crisis.
But Flora and Fauna’s Urteaga says MARENA should first focus on enforcing the existing laws.
“Government efforts to stop the trade have been minimal. You can go to any market in Nicaragua and find parrots, turtle eggs and an array of other illegal wildlife for sale,” said Urteaga.
Though the animal trafficking industry seems to be flourishing here, Sacasa says he has a few reasons for optimism. Along with MARENA, he has released some 2,000 rescued animals back into the wild over the past four years, and is in the process of expanding his rescue center’s capacity, which was once on the verge of closing it doors due to lack of funding (NT, July 29, 2005).
Meanwhile, the Ortega government claims 2 million turtles were born on Nicaraguan beaches last year under MARENA’s turtle conservation program, which is conducted in conjunction with Flora and Fauna.
Sacasa also senses MARENA’s enforcement efforts are having greater effects.
“Sometimes government authorities have scarce funds. But at least they’re doing something,” he said. “Traffickers are afraid. They’re hiding it more.”
That may be true, even if in subtle ways. Street vendor Eddie Calero struts down the dusty sidewalk in Granada on a recent afternoon with a cooler slung over his shoulder, advertising his products.
“Camarones y huevos de paslama,” he yells. He was selling shrimp and eggs from the Olive Ridley turtle.
When an interested party approaches, Calero offers only the shrimp, keeping the turtle eggs hidden under newspaper.
Asked about the turtle eggs, he responds: “You’re not from the Environment Ministry, are you?”