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Jaguar tooth trade – a victimless crime?

In March 2015, a 42 year old businessman Li Jianyuan was stopped by the customs in Beijing Capital Airport.

Li arrived from Paris, but the original port of departure was Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Li, a Chinese citizen, had been living in Bolivia since 2006. Hidden in Li’s check-in luggage, were 119 jaguar teeth and 13 jaguar claws. The total value estimated by the court at 446,250 yuan – over 70,000 US dollars.

Jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas and is found from the southern United States to northern Argentina.

Li claimed that the teeth and claws were from wild boar. In court, the defence then tried to argue that Li was not aware that jaguar products were illegal. However, the records on Li’s messaging apps showed that in the conversations he had before his arrest, the businessman was fully aware of the illegality of bringing jaguar products into China.

Li was found guilty by Beijing’s 4th Intermediate Court of smuggling valuable species of animals and products made from them, and sentenced to 4 years and 6 months. He was also given a fine of 50,000 yuan (approximately 8,000 US dollars). The case was widely reported in the Chinese media.

This is, as yet, the only prosecution in China for smuggling, possession or trading of jaguar body parts. However, in 2016 the Chinese consulate-general in the city of Santa Cruz in Bolivia, where Li Jianyuan lived, issued a notice on their official website:

“The demand for jaguar teeth on the Chinese market led to a dramatic increase in the hunting of jaguars, causing a very large drop in their numbers - the relevant departments of the Bolivian government made high-level warnings. According to the Article 223 of the Bolivian Constitution, and the Article 1333 of the Environmental Law, it is strictly forbidden to kill jaguars in the country and strictly forbidden to smuggle, buy and sell jaguar teeth and other products. Violators will be prosecuted according to Bolivian law.”

The notice also reminded the Chinese citizens resident in Bolivia that the Chinese government is cracking down on illegal wildlife trade and that criminal prosecutions await serious offenders at home.

“No trade means no killing!” said the notice. It also reminded all Chinese travellers, overseas Chinese and employees at Chinese enterprises to strictly abide by Bolivian and Chinese laws, and not engage in illegal trade in jaguar and other wildlife products, and not to attempt to bring such products to China. The statement ended with an appeal to protect the environment, take the green road of civilisation and avoid damaging one’s own interests by breaking the law.

The city of Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s business capital. It also houses the largest Chinese community in the country. Bolivia’s 2015 Global Development Plan relies on China as the main investor. Chinese companies are involved in many infrastructure and mining projects in the country. Many of such infrastructure projects go through jaguar habitat.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra - the largest city in Bolivia, it is the business center of the country.

Bolivian conservationists say that Chinese residents working on such projects are buying up jaguar teeth from local hunters. The teeth are then sent via mail and cargo to China. In 2016, 181 canines of jaguar were intercepted in 16 packages sent from Bolivia, almost all were sent by Chinese citizens, all to China.

One photo, published by Mongabay, shows an envelope that contained jaguar’s teeth and was intercepted in Bolivia. It was addressed to Putian city in Fujian province. Putian has long had a reputation as a wildlife trade hub - the Chinese law enforcement recently dismantled ivory smuggling gangs operating out of the city.

From 2017, however, no seizures of jaguar teeth in the post were made in Bolivia.

Bolivian conservationists estimate that since 2014, when the problem first came to light in Bolivia, at least 200 jaguars have been killed to supply the demand of the trade. Jaguars are still numerous in Bolivia - their number in the country has been reported at almost 13,000 animals. However, 200 jaguars represent close to 2% of the country’s population of this species. Moreover, this figure is certainly an underestimation as only part of wildlife poaching and smuggling becomes exposed.

In comparison, the entire population of jaguars in neighbouring Argentina is estimated to be around 300.

In Beijing, jaguar tooth smuggler Li was sentenced to 4 years, but in Bolivia traffickers who get arrested go almost unpunished - the judges and prosecutors consider such crime harmless and victimless according to Ángela Núñez, a Bolivian biologist who exposed the trade.

Núñez explained in a 2018 interview with Bolivian television: “These sentences are very low for the harms they did. Once the case goes to the prosecutor or judge, they consider it a nonsense case. One prosecutor said to me – what are seven teeth of a jaguar?”

None of the Chinese citizens put on trial in Bolivia for trafficking jaguar products served any jail time, said Núñez. The maximum term ordered was three years’ imprisonment, but in every case it was either suspended, or a pardon was given.

Núñez also explained how the buyers operate: “The Chinese do not go into the forest to hunt the animals, they are hiring locals and indigenous people. The money that they offer for one tooth is attractive for the people who have few sources of income - 100 US dollars offered for one tooth is a lot to them.”

The teeth are either made into jewellery, or, as is the case with other bones of big cats, are used to make traditional medicine. Asian big cats, such as tigers, that are normally used for this purpose, are now very rare in the wild and are also strictly protected. For this reason, unscrupulous traditional medicine producers are increasingly relying on the still numerous species of big cats including Africa’s lions - and it appears, America’s jaguars.

Seizures of lion’s bones and teeth are now regularly made by the Chinese customs and law enforcement. The current value of jaguar’s teeth or bones in China is unclear, but data from other big cat species may serve as reference.

In 2020, a court in Hunan Province estimated the value of tiger canines, seized from traffickers, at 12,500 yuan (USD 2,000) each. In Guangxi Autonomous Region that borders Vietnam, Vietnamese dealers sell lion claws, teeth and bones together with other African wildlife contraband, including rhino horn. The African contraband is first shipped to Vietnam and then smuggled across the porous border into Guangxi. In 2018, a court in Guangxi valued 3 lion canines, sold by Vietnamese traffickers, at 3,700 yuan (USD 590) each. The same traffickers sold lion’s bones for 6,000 yuan (USD 950) per kilogram.

The problem of jaguar teeth trafficking has also now also emerged in other countries where jaguars are numerous, such as Peru and Colombia.

The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative was founded to address the widespread problem of prosecutors and judges considering wildlife crime as harmless and victimless.

We prepare Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) – legal briefs that highlight the current threats to endangered species and the environmental harms caused by their trafficking. We explain the roles that the species plays in the ecosystem and the damage done to the ecosystem when the species is removed. Moreover, we show how local communities may be affected by illegal trade, when ecological damage compromises the services that local ecosystems – forests, grasslands and rivers, provide to them. In Hong Kong, the use of SVIS by legal professionals and judges has already led to 2,000% increase in sentences handed down to traffickers.

The SVIS Initiative have prepared species victim impact statements for more than 100 commonly trafficked species of animals and plants. Examples of SVIS can be viewed here. To request SVIS, contact the SVIS Initiative founder, Associate Professor Amanda Whitfort:



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