Stalking the pugmarks of the animal trade

The last stop of an investigative film is the South American Indian, dirt-poor and coerced into poaching by the 'big boss'

By Seema Kalra
Published: Thursday 30 June 1994

IT'S DARK, almost midnight, and in the darkness a torch flashes light over the dark waters of Paraguay. The global detective is lying in waiting for the crime to take place. All is silent except for the gentle sound of the waves. Then, in the space of a second, the prey turns victim. The silence continues, for the victim doesn't have much scope for struggle.

The merciless killer is a South American Indian and the victim is the Caimon Jacare, a reptile which has been declared an endangered species by CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species). Unfortunately, here the killer himself is a helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control. There are others who sit far away from the scene of crime who are the real perpetrators of this heinous crime.
Chilling turths This is revealed in Global Detective, an investigative film directed by Luke Holland, produced by the BBC. The film moves from the forest to the village, to cities, to marketplaces, to government offices. It moves during the night and the day. With hidden cameras and identities incognito, it is a chilling film that uncovers the network of officials, dealers and smugglers.

From the scene of crime we move to a village of 500 Chomacoco Indians -- dusty streets, dirty jeans and T-shirts, semi-clad children, weathered faces. Traditionally, the dirt-poor Chomacoco tribe hunted the jacare for food, but now they stalk it for the white men across the river.

You need a licence to kill the jacare, and the illegal poaching takes place at night. The hunters can snatch only a few hours of daylight for skinning the reptile. Then they vanish, leaving open graveyards, with piles of flesh and gristle.

Global Detective investigates further. The government has formed units of what are called "ecocommandos" to hunt the hunters. And these are real commandos, with Stenguns and speedboats ready to slaughter the offenders. An attack following a tipoff looks almost like a guerrilla war. Some hunters get killed in the encounter. The news is flashed over local television. There is mourning in the village. A hunter's mother wallows in her sorrow. His wife is more daring. Holding on to her 2 children, she spits out her anger at the local "big boss". "He forced him to kill for 3,000 guaranties***," she bursts out.

Then the detective goes to meet the local big boss, with a camera hidden in his pocket. The big boss expresses his dislike for journalists and their like in very explicit terms. There is no way that this boss will divulge any useful information.

But how does this racket work? A chat with a pilot who has worked with the skin-dealers is an eye-opener. The illegal agents blatantly announce the whereabouts of the loot to private pilots on the local radio; pilots who pay a landing fee for using the military airfield.

And where does the loot go? Where else but to Asuncion, the heart of the contraband economy: furs, jewellery, drugs. A drive through this city is shocking, to say the least. Shops visited by international customers are seen openly selling jacare skins, despite the shopkeepers being aware that this trade is dangerous.

At a distance from the marketplace is a tannery where the raw skin is treated. Its a slum near a beautiful bungalow is owned by a dealer. The sight of a tanning plant is repulsive, with carcasses and rotting flesh spewed all over. When confronted, however, the dealer denies that he is doing anything illegal. A government official -- under protection -- reveals that it is the level of corruption in government circles that allows the the operation to take place. He even reveals some important names, one of which is a dealer.

A visit to the dealer turns out to be an aggressive and threatening monologue: "The environmentalists know nothing. People in South America have to kill to live. They have no other alternative." The final destination of the skins are places like Italy, Thailand, Spain, Singapore. An Italian official blandly says that illegal trade in animal skins is not unique to Italy, and that when there is a sharp gap in demand and supply, smuggling is inevitable.

The film ends on a dramatic note, with people wearing furs, shoes, handbags made out of animal skin. Here, a moment's pleasure -- possessing such exotic items -- is obviously more valuable than the lives of many animals.

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