CSI Songbird

Brazilian gene detective Juliana Machado Ferreira studies the DNA of songbirds to trace their geographic origins, piecing together how wildlife trafficking affects specific bird populations and habitats. Juliana told TUNZA about her work and the potentially devastating effects of wildlife trafficking in Brazil.

“I was brought up outside São Paulo, learning to love and respect nature, and understand ecology. When I learned about the illegal wild pet trade – particularly the domestic wild bird trade – I became so interested that I focused my PhD research on developing population genetic studies for Brazilian wild bird species exploited by the illegal trade.

As a conservation geneticist, my research helps detect distinct genetic populations within species to figure out the most likely origin of trafficked birds. This also helps us learn which ecosystems are being affected, and where best to release rehabilitated captive birds.

A lot of wildlife gets traded illegally out of Brazil. One organization, RENCTAS (http://www.renctas.org.br), estimates that more than 38 million animals are taken every year, not including fish or insects.

The most targeted groups are birds – especially parrots and macaws, which are traded as pets – small mammals like small monkeys and sloths, and reptiles and amphibians. It’s important to mention that while global illegal trade is huge – worth about to $20 billion dollars annually – the illegal domestic trade within Brazili is actually several times bigger in terms of the numbers of animals involved. And in this domestic trade, almost 85 per cent of the wild animals being traded illegally are songbirds and parrots.

Taking animals out of their natural habitat raises four major concerns. First, it’s an activity that rewards criminal organizations while exploiting poor people from vulnerable communities who collect the animals for traffickers. Secondly, animals are captured through violent methods and transported in inhumane conditions – leading to broken beaks, feathers or legs. And every wild animal is a potential source of disease – like rabies and tuberculosis – that can infect humans.

Exploiting even a single species can lead to the unbalancing of a whole ecosystem beyond its resilience limit, with serious consequences to the economy and life as we know it. Every animal in the wild has a role to play in the web of ecosystem interactions.

When numerous animals are taken from nature on a regular basis, they cease to perform their roles. Predators, prey, pollinators, seed dispersers, seed predators all stop doing their jobs. For example, if too many of one species of bird are removed from one location, the population of insects they feed on could explode, and even become an agricultural pest. If a species of lizard feeds on this bird’s eggs and nestlings, it, too, may also suffer. And if a tree species depends on a bird to disperse its seeds, the lack of new trees affects all the species that depend on them – and lack of trees increases the threat of soil erosion and water siltation.

There’s also the problem of creating negative selection. These individual animals are captured for their special qualities will not be able to pass these genes to the next generation. Lower genetic variability can weaken the remaining population, making it more susceptible to disease, vulnerable to environmental changes and even cause reproduction problems. The term for this is “inbreeding depression”.

Some argue that all this would come about only if very large numbers of animals were stolen from nature – so what difference does buying one pet make? Unfortunately, the numbers are high, and the impacts tangible and urgent. So be aware of the origins of your pets, jewelry or souvenirs, and together we can prevent all this from happening further. When it comes to environmental conservation, it is all for one – and every animal matters!

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