Songbirds Silenced as Colombia Fights Wildlife Trafficking

24 August, 2019

The metal doors of a small cage open up and a bird wearing the number 8-1-1 flies into a larger enclosure.

The bird, a saffron finch, lands on a tree and moves its red head to the side, as if it is surprised.

In this Aug. 5, 2019 photo, canaries caught from the wild by animal traffickers sing in their cages in a quarantined area of a wildlife center before being freed in Bogota, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)
In this Aug. 5, 2019 photo, canaries caught from the wild by animal traffickers sing in their cages in a quarantined area of a wildlife center before being freed in Bogota, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

"That's what it feels like to be free," said Juan Camilo Panqueba. He works at a wildlife center in the Colombian city of Bogota, far from the Caribbean coast, where the bird usually lives.

The moment of release is very different from the conditions in which the bird was found.

Three weeks ago, Colombian officials seized 32 finches in a surprise raid on a group organizing cockfighting events. Officials accuse the group of setting up a songbird competition, called "the clash of titans," on social media. People won money if they correctly predicted the winner.

Birdsong contests have taken place throughout the Caribbean for hundreds of years. But capturing any wildlife without government permission is a crime in Colombia.

Until recently, officials did not enforce the law. They were too busy fighting violence from the drug trade, rebel fighters and other armed groups. But now, as violence has fallen and with the drug trade mostly destroyed, officials are taking another look.

Colombians have grown to understand the importance of their country's biodiversity. It is said to have the second highest biodiversity levels in the world.

Officials are working to end animal trafficking. Last year, police seized more than 34,600 animals illegally trapped in the wild — a 44% increase over 2017 levels. Many of the animals were found at airports and bus stations by dogs trained to find bird feathers or skin.

Colombian government lawyers are also going after criminals that use the illegal animal trade to earn money. Police say illegal sales of birds and animals are nearly as profitable as illegal drugs or arms trade. Worldwide, the wildlife trade is worth more than $10 billion, notes the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime.

The law enforcement comes at the same time as the debate about the rights of wild animals.

This month, judges on Colombia's constitutional court heard arguments in a case over an endangered Andean bear named Chucho. Years ago Chucho was taken from a wildlife area and sent to a zoo in Barranquilla. A lawyer successfully brought legal action to have Chucho released.

If the high court supports that ruling, it would be the first time a wild animal in Colombia has ever been given habeas corpus rights like those of human beings.

The seizure of the 32 birds was the result of a secret police operation. In May, police seized 16 birds, including an endangered one, from small cages in three homes. Information gathered in that operation enabled the police to uncover the group that held the songbird contests.

A video published on a closed Facebook group explained the competition. While onlookers cheered, judges measured the loudness and the number of calls from each bird. The owner of the winning bird received $100.

Environmental officials say the birds were abused. Their captors were mostly people who had recently moved to Bogota from the Caribbean and Venezuela. The captors kept the birds in the small cages and forced them to listen to loud music all day long to make them sing. In the wild, the birds sing to defend their territory or find a mate.

"For them, it was like torture," noted Juan Camilo Panqueba, who works as technical supervisor at Bogota's wildlife center. There, he and others care for birds and more than 1,000 animals, many of them endangered and all taken from traffickers.

I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

moment – n. part of a minute; a brief period of time

cockfightingadj. involving or related to a competition in which chickens fight each other

biodiversity n. biological differences in an environment as seen in the numbers of plant and animal species

zoo – n. a place where live, usually wild animals are kept for the public to see

habeas corpus – n. an order to bring a jailed person before a judge or court to find out if that person should really be in jail,