By Charles Seabrook in Manaus, Brazil December 26, 2003
In the heart of Brazil's rainforest, a riverboat nudges up to a trading post along the January river, an Amazon tributary. Children laden with animals quickly converge on the passengers. A girl shows off a bright blue-and-red parrot. Another girl has a two-metre-long snake draped over her shoulders. A boy holds up a sad-eyed monkey. The animals are for sale. When asked where she got the parrot, the first girl - an 11-year-old named Isabel - points to the lush rainforest across the river.
Looking on is the trading post proprietor, identified only as "Mr Beautiful". Sitting in a rickety chair, his arms folded across his bulging belly, he explains that he doesn't sell the animals.
"But if you want to make a deal with the children, that's their business," he says, dragging on a cigarette. He won't say if the children are related to him, or if they work for him.
Brazil's 1998 environmental crimes law makes it illegal to hunt, capture, transport or sell native species without explicit government permission, which is rarely granted. Offenders face fines and imprisonment.
But it is common knowledge that children in the Amazon won't be arrested for wildlife crimes.
The children, and others like them around the world, are at the originating end of an enormous illegal pipeline through which millions of wild creatures are funnelled each year.
The pipeline runs through middlemen and smugglers to pet shop owners, exotic pet fanciers, breeders, private collectors, taxidermists and others willing to pay large sums for a fancy lizard or a rare parrot.
Gerardo Huertas, head of the office of the World Society for the Protection of Wildlife, says middlemen often go down the rivers to buy the animals that people dangle for sale along the waterways - like the children at Mr Beautiful's place.
Brazil is the largest source of wildlife on the global black market, accounting for roughly a third of all the animals, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Few countries have more species favoured by black marketers.
From the treetops, rainbow-coloured birds sing and squawk.
Gray woolly monkeys leap from limb to limb. Three-toed sloths inch slowly up the trunks.
The wildlife trade is draining away this rich diversity.
A woolly monkey can bring $A65,000 in Japan, the same as the striking cobalt-blue Lear's macaw, one of the world's most endangered birds, can fetch in Europe.
Hunters earn little for capturing these animals. A scarlet macaw can be purchased for $65 at street markets in Brazil and sold for $3200 in Europe.
Even insects and spiders have value. Iridescent beetles are so prized, for instance, that some traffickers build expensive 40-metre-high elevator systems to collect them from the rainforest canopy.
Some of the riverboats that travel down the Amazon to Belem, at the river's mouth, are called "Noah's arks" because of all the smuggled animals aboard.
When they get to Belem, traffickers have several options - freighters, cruise ships, commercial flights, private planes - for dispatching their contraband to markets overseas.
Some Brazilian authorities say that they have been able to reduce smuggling along the Amazon with police raids, stepped-up inspections and covert operations.
However, crackdowns are usually only temporarily effective. Traffickers quickly find other routes to thwart authorities - particularly lawless regions of Brazil with porous borders.
* * * CROSS POSTING IS ENCOURAGED * * *