A leopard, a lion, even an African lynx and scores of tortoises were last year among hundreds of protected species rescued by Spanish police who say low penalties are partly to blame for a sharp rise in the number of animals trafficked to the country.
Spain is a gateway for traffickers from Latin America who take the animals out of their natural habitats to sell them to wealthy collectors in France, Belgium and eastern Europe.
Last year, there was a 55% increase in the number of protected animals trafficked to Spain compared with 2021 but 677 specimens of animals and tropical trees, with a street value of €600,000, were rescued by officers from a specialised Civil Guard unit.
The international wildlife trade accounts for a criminal trade worth between $72 and $216 billion every year, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which said it was the third most lucrative in the world after drug smuggling and arms dealing.
“Every year millions of plants and animals are trafficked to meet the demand of an expanding market. It is estimated that up to 18% of the 31,745 species of the vertebrates in the world are threatened because they are trapped in this market,” Laura Moreno, of the species programme of WWF told Euronews.
“Due to its geostrategic position and its cultural and socioeconomic ties with the countries of Latin America and Africa, Spain appears in most of the reports as an important country of entry and transit on illegal trafficking routes.”
Spanish officers scour advertisements on the internet to try to find animal traffickers. Recently, Spain’s Civil Guard arrested 77 people involved in animal trafficking from Latin America or trying to transport them into Spain in an operation with Interpol and forces in Latin America, details of which were made public earlier this month.
“Low penalties for these offenses of (monthly) fines for six months or two years are partly to blame for the rise in offences,” said Comandante Carlos Toledano, of a specialised Seprona unit that combats animal traffickers.
Criminals face jail terms of between six months and two years or fines.
In Spain, jail terms of up to two years for first offences are suspended, so those caught are almost always fined. These vary depending on each case.
Gangs ship wild birds, rare felines, and tortoises from South America to Europe. Once in Spain, other crime groups send the animals to other European countries, Toledano said.
Tortoises, iguanas, and snakes are often shipped because they are easier to send.
Fourteen pieces of elephant ivory were found in Barcelona in one raid and in another case, police discovered 44 pieces in an auction house that were worth €20,000. Tropical trees like mahogany and American cedar were also among the items seized by police.
Large felines like a lion, a leopard and an African lynx were also recovered by the authorities and now live in a refuge near Alicante in southeastern Spain.
One of the worst cases at the centre is an eight-months-old, totally blind, clouded leopard. Staff at the centre believe it lost its sight because of the poor diet it was given by its owners.
“It is very sad to see an animal so young with irreversible blindness but it is adapting to its new conditions,” Miguel García, a keeper, told Euronews.
Comandante Toledano explained that “in some cases, the species which we seized were not being sold. They were owned by people but broke laws on possession of protected species. Their values can vary from €100 for a parrot to €4,000 or even €8,000. It is a black market, so it is not easy to give values.”
“The worst case I have seen is a squirrel monkey locked up in a cage.”
‘Spain is a gateway’
He said the level of social awareness of the problem of wildlife trafficking was not as high as that of other issues like forest fires which directly affect people’s welfare.
On Wednesday, a new Animal Welfare Law came into force in Spain, which will include a list of animals that cannot be classed as pets.
Scientists will draw up the list. It will not ban dogs, cats or hamsters but will clarify that snakes, lions or other animals cannot be kept for reasons of safety or because they may damage the environment.
Marta Esteban, spokeswoman for the Foundation to Help Animals, said this list would help protected species from being trafficked to Spain.
“Spain is a gateway of illegal trafficking of animals which are trafficked from America or from Africa. That’s why Spain is a key country in that respect, “ she told Euronews.
“There was a case the other day of a huge collection of stuffed animals. There is also a lot of money to be made smuggling baby eels.”
Ms Esteban added: “It is important that penalties are increased for these offences for the sake of the animals, biodiversity but also public health and security.”