Story Publication logo September 28, 2023

Stalking the Jaguar Trade in Suriname


a jaguar in the jungle

Jaguars in Suriname have been killed, chopped, and illegally exported.


A rescued jaguar at a zoo in Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo. Image by Santiago Wills. 2023.

Is this small, densely forested country the new hub for transnational criminal networks trafficking jaguar “glue” to Asia?

THE JAGUAR’S CORPSE ceremoniously extended on the ground. Its eyes were closed, and a swarm of flies hovered over its half-opened jaws. “This is the dangerous species that lives in the woods,” intones the man filming the dead animal with his cellphone in Sranan Tongo, the vernacular language of Suriname. “Today is the day you were shot.” He steps away from the lean corpse of the feline, beautiful even in death, before continuing: “We had seen [you] a couple of times before. You were doing a show, and today we shot you. We are going to cook you and eat you.”

In September of 2022, the video of the dead jaguar started circulating in Surinamese social media. One of the first people to receive it was Els van Lavieren, a Marine & Wildlife Conservation Program manager at Conservation International Suriname and a consultant for the big cat conservation group Panthera. Van Lavieren, an affable Dutch primatologist with a leonine mane, had been analyzing the dynamics of wildlife trafficking in the small South American nation for almost half a decade. During that time, she had compiled a database of events related to the illegal trade of felines. There were 70 records involving jaguars: fangs sold at massage centers and Chinese stores, pelts seized near illegal gold mines or at small roadside stands, jaguar skulls in jewelry stores, week-old cubs in private residences, and carcasses paraded in logging camps, farms, and, as in this footage, on social media.

This particular video confounded her. Outside of some small factions in Suriname’s Chinese community, who might partake of jaguar parts for their supposed medicinal purposes, she had never heard of people eating jaguars. Van Lavieren investigated the event and found out that it had occurred in the country’s northeast, close to the town of Moengo, near the country’s border with French Guyana. The feline used to roam the hunter’s farm in the mornings, her sources told her. The jaguar had killed two dogs and scared the workers, so the farm owner shot it.

I had heard versions of the same story across Latin America — human-jaguar conflicts that arise where the agricultural frontier trespasses into what was once the undisputed territory of apex predators. But, as Roy Ho Tsoi of Suriname’s Forest Service also noted, there was an additional complication: In the first frames of the video, the jaws of the jaguar appeared flaccid. Someone had removed the fangs, and the most probable reason to do so, van Lavieren says, was to sell them to a Chinese intermediary.

SURINAME IS PERHAPS THE LEAST known country of South America. It hides behind the veil of a foreign tongue — the official language is Dutch, and the lingua franca is Sranan Tongo, an English-based creole whose lexicon combines, among others, Dutch, Portuguese, and West African languages. It engages in little to no trade with the rest of the continent and boasts an unending forest that covers nearly 90 percent of the land. In and around that forest live six Maroon tribes — descendants of African slaves who escaped and rebelled against Dutch colonists — and 10 Native Surinamese or Amerindian communities, Dutch retirees, Europeans, and a considerable percentage of Javanese, Hindustani, Chinese, and Latin Americans who were either relocated forcefully to work on indigo, cotton, coffee, and cacao plantations, or who moved here voluntarily in pursuit of diverse dreams.

In 1863, when slavery was abolished, cheap contract laborers from China, India, and Java replaced slaves at plantations. Farming continued to be Suriname’s main economic activity until the beginning of the twentieth century. The discovery of bauxite mines — the source of aluminum — and the two world wars shifted the colony’s attention from agriculture to extraction. The governments that have ruled the country since its independence in 1975 haven’t managed to find alternatives. Today, half of public sector revenue comes from mining, mainly gold, which represents some 80 percent of Suriname’s total exports.

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Early last year, I traveled to Suriname to investigate the trafficking of jaguar parts from America to Asia, where people reportedly use the fangs, bones, and claws as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, or as luxury status symbols in a subculture known as Wenwan. In 2018, a special report from World Animal Protection, a British nonprofit, found that traffickers in Suriname were not only selling jaguar parts, they were also boiling jaguar corpses in massive cauldrons to produce a gray, glue-like paste. This concoction was being sold in small vials, in China, for prices from $785 to $3,000.

The illegal trade of jaguar parts is a relatively old story. For almost two decades, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Traffic, and other conservation groups have been sounding the alarm about the trafficking of fangs, claws, and bones from the Americas to China and the Golden Triangle — a jungle region where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. According to their reports, criminal organizations had started replacing tiger parts with those of other big cats to compensate for the former’s scarcity and the growing demand in Asia. Jaguars, whose range stretches from the southwestern United States to the north of Argentina, covering 8.42 million square kilometers in 19 countries, are the world’s third largest feline, behind the tiger and the lion. All three belong to the genus Panthera and share the same ancestors. Jaguars (Panthera onca) and lions (Panthera leo) have large canines and similar bone structures to their Asian counterparts, so their parts are often passed off as tiger (Panthera tigris).

But unlike the wider trafficking of jaguar parts, reports from Suriname about the production of paste — a replacement for tiger glue, popular in Vietnam and Thailand for supposed health benefits, was new. This made the country a great candidate for understanding the evolution of the trade.

There was another strong reason to visit the smallest country in South America. In May 2021, I spoke with Andrea Crosta, the director of Earth League International (ELI), a conservation group that investigates wildlife-trafficking rings. Crosta, who calls ELI the first “Earth CIA,” has a master’s in zoology and did some early-career work in conservation before spending 18 years as a consultant for companies that provided services to intelligence agencies. In 2010, while working in Kenya, he learned that al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist organization with connections to al-Qaeda, was selling ivory and rhino horns to Chinese buyers. This tip led to “Ivory and Terrorism: Africa’s White Gold of Jihad,” an 18-month investigation with Nir Kalron, a former Israeli soldier, which revealed that al-Shabaab and other terrorist organizations, like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Janjaweed militias in Sudan, were funding their activities through the illegal wildlife trade.

Crosta founded ELI shortly after to study the connections between environmental crimes and transnational organizations and networks. ELI uses undercover agents to infiltrate those groups, something that local law enforcement often doesn’t have the resources to do. “It’s the third-largest [criminal] endeavor in the world [after drug trafficking and counterfeiting],” Crosta told me, citing Interpol and UN data, which estimate that environmental crimes are worth more than $280 billion a year. (The illegal wildlife trade accounts for $20 billion.) “It moves billions of dollars every year, and there is no intelligence. There are hundreds of millions of dollars invested in poaching, awareness, advocacy, but nobody does intelligence because it’s too complicated, too difficult. That’s why we are losing this war.”

In 2020, ELI agents in Bolivia discovered that three transnational criminal organizations were sending jaguar fangs from the cities of Santa Cruz and La Paz to China. When we spoke, agents were pursuing a similar inquiry in Suriname. The investigation would take a while, but some of the preliminary results pointed to networks like those in Bolivia. “[This] is a small country dominated by the Chinese all the way up to the highest level of the government, mixing legal and illegal activities,” Crosta said.

Decades of rule by Dési Bouterse — a former soldier who led a military coup in 1980, ran a dictatorship until 1987, and later served as the elected president of Suriname from 2010 to 2020 — left the country with a legacy of corruption and in debt to China, a country he cozied up to. (In 2019, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering the extrajudicial execution of 15 political opponents in 1982.)

a hand holding a pendant with a tooth inset
A 10-year database on illegal trade of felines in Suriname has 70 records involving jaguars, including fangs sold at massage centers and Chinese stores, pelts seized near illegal gold mines or at small roadside stands, and jaguar skulls (right) in jewelry stores. Image by Santiago Wills. Suriname, 2023.

Humans have traded jaguar parts since at least the fifth century. A photo of a jaguar skull. Image courtesy of Wagner Souza e Silva/Museum of Veterinary Anatomy FMVZ USP.

Suriname owes at least a billion dollars to Beijing. The country’s debt grew tenfold by the end of the pandemic. Chinese interests own half of all logging contracts, according to an investigation by the German broadcaster DW, and they have a growing list of business interests in the country, including casinos, restaurants, banks, TV and radio stations, construction companies, and an estimated 90 percent of the country’s supermarkets.

This influx of Chinese companies, along with infrastructure projects that have led to the building of new roads into previously inaccessible wilderness, has fostered ideal conditions for the spread of the jaguar trade here.

HUMANS HAVE PINED FOR and traded jaguar parts since at least the fifth century. According to recent genetic studies of animal remains found in Copan, Honduras, the Mayas in the city, which stood from 426-820 AD, captured and kept jaguars, pumas, and other animals that were important in their cosmology. Their skins were used by noblemen and priests.

The allure of the spotted hides has lingered. As Jo Weldon writes in the book Fierce: The History of Leopard Print, big cat pelts have been worn by men and women as symbols of ferocity, rebellion, freedom, luxury, naughtiness, exoticism, and power for centuries. After the Industrial Revolution leopard and jaguar print slowly became a staple for women. The underlying sentiment is the same that moved African kings and Aztec warriors to dress themselves with the pelts of the predators: the desire to be those animals, to hunt like them, move like them, and bask in their beauty. In the twentieth century, the fur trade associated with that yearning was the key driver behind jaguar hunting. According to one study, between 1904 and 1969, 182,564 jaguars were killed for their skins in the Brazilian Amazon alone. The figure is scandalous, especially when you consider that the most optimistic estimates of the current jaguar population sets the number at 173,000, while the most pessimistic ones peg it at about a third of that.

In 1975, with the ratification of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which included the jaguar in a list of animals and plants that can’t be traded commercially, hunting was curbed. Trade in their body parts became less of a concern and a broader set of threats to their populations — such as habitat loss and fragmentation and conflicts with ranchers over actual or perceived predation on livestock — took over. But now, as CITES notes in a 2019 study, rising demand for jaguar parts in other continents, particularly Asia, is again raising concerns about the species’ long-term survival.

However, it’s not clear just how big a threat trafficking currently poses to jaguars as a species, or where the trade is concentrated. There are many information vacuums, Melissa Arias, an Ecuadorian scientist who led the CITES study, told me over a Zoom call. For instance, the number of seized jaguar parts whose destination was the US is 19 times higher than those headed to China, but no one is sure if this is because the US is better equipped to intercept wildlife traffickers or due to some other reason.

Arias said her team couldn’t find any evidence of connections to international mafias like the ones ELI described, and that most of the illegal trade of jaguar parts in Suriname seems to be local or national. While a few individuals have been convicted for trafficking in Suriname, Bolivia, and other countries, thus far there has been no way of proving that they are part of transnational criminal organizations. As part of its investigation, CITES had received intelligence from ELI on three supposed criminal networks in Bolivia, but the researchers couldn’t corroborate it, since law enforcement agencies had no information about them. (In 2019, an International Union for Conservation of Nature report noted that Suriname “appears to be underestimating the seriousness of the situation and should urgently ramp up enforcement efforts to identify and bring to justice key culprits.”)

This sort of quandary, however, is part of the nature of the crime, said Debbie Banks, campaign leader of Tigers & Wildlife Crime at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a British conservation NGO that has been closely monitoring the tiger trade in Asia. EIA has recorded only a few cases of jaguar parts being illegally sold in Asia as replacements for tiger parts. Nevertheless, as Banks told me, it’s hard to tell whether the glue, the fangs, or the bones that are sold on social media like WeChat in Asia come from one big cat or the other.

And contrary to Arias’s contention that most of the jaguar parts trade in Suriname is happening locally, several studies do point to a growing demand from the Asian market. An analysis of interceptions of wild cat parts in the Americas from 2012 to 2018, published in the journal Conservation Biology, found that “source countries with relatively high levels of corruption and Chinese private investment and low income per capita had 10 to 50 times more jaguar seizures than the remaining sampled countries.” The same investigation discovered that jaguar seizures had increased with time, and nearly all of them involved fangs. (“The big traffickers are only interested in fangs and bones,” Crosta told me. “Very few things have this mark up and very few things are so easily smuggled.”) Another study from the Wildlife Conservation Society found 125 offerings of jaguar parts in 71 posts across 12 online platforms in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese between 2009 and 2019.

In Vietnam, people call the jaguar American leopard and, in China, American tiger. An International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) investigation found several social media posts offering fangs and bones not from either one, but from the generic “American cats,” Joaquín de la Torre Ponce, IFAW’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told me. This would suggest that jaguar parts from countries like Suriname are being sold as replacement for tigers. Debbie Banks suspects there might be an additional market for “American cats” per se.

SEVERAL ANIMAL BONES WERE laid out on a table in Banquet Hall 3 at the Royal Torarica, the most exclusive hotel in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital city. A few of the country’s top law enforcement officers were circling the teeth, fangs, and skulls on display, discussing the differences between jaguar, puma, ocelot, peccary, and deer carcasses. The presentation, aimed at helping the officials identify different jaguar parts, was being run by a bookish man named Pepper Trail.

I had met Trail coincidentally a few days before on the plane from Miami to Paramaribo. We struck up a conversation, after he saw me reading a travel book about the Guianas. Trail is one of the only two forensic ornithologists in the world — imagine a CSI for birds. He works for the US Fish and Wildlife crime lab in Oregon, where he came to be known as the “Sherlock Holmes of bird crime.” He was traveling to Suriname because of jaguars, he told me on the plane.

In the early 1980s, Trail, a New York biologist, spent nearly five years in the forests of Suriname studying the Guianan cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola), a striking, sexually dimorphic bird the size of a miniature chicken. He came to love the dense, virgin forests of the country, which he only left, in 1986, when the civil war started. In early 2022, because of his previous experience in the country and his job in the crime lab, he was hired to train Surinamese government officials on how to recognize jaguar parts.

a river meander, small settlement on the bank
Criminal networks in Suriname rely primarily on local hunters, including infrastructure and mining-industry workers living in remote, newly created settlements like the one pictured. Image courtesy of Robert Harding.

At the hotel, after the law enforcement officials — customs officers, army officials, and police captains — turned the bones in their hands, weighing and appraising them, the conversation turned to jaguar paste. “We don’t know much about it,” Trail acknowledged, “but we would love to get a sample.” Forensics labs in the US might be able to analyze it, he said. Few in the audience knew much about it either, or the jaguar trade in general. Most gasped when they saw a photograph of a vial containing the “glue,” and most couldn’t offer leads into how wildlife trade was happening here.

A few government offices, however, have been keeping close tabs on the jaguar trade. Ho Tsoi, the head of Conservation Management of the Suriname Forest Service, oversees one of them. An army veteran and security expert, he first encountered the trade in the 1990s. During a raid, law enforcement officials seized a jaguar body in a Chinese pharmacy near the airport, but they didn’t pay much attention, he told me. The nature of the problem only became clear after a 2010 WWF investigation that found jaguar teeth and meat in Chinese shops in Paramaribo, and bared the sale of jaguar parts to intermediaries in the country’s interior.

The Forest Service’s investigations show that traffickers usually fly fangs and other jaguar parts from Paramaribo to Wellington, in Guyana. From there, they are flown to Europe and, ultimately, Asia. Often, they are flown directly from Suriname to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Since Guyana has more international flights than Suriname, it acts as a hub. Jaguar teeth have also arrived there from Macapá and Boa Vista, in northern Brazil, indicating a regional problem.

In December 2021, representatives from Suriname, Brazil, Guyana, Colombia, and Peru met in Sao Paulo to discuss the wildlife trade. (Bolivia didn’t participate, despite several instances of jaguar trafficking in the country.) They agreed to cooperate and share information, but none of the countries had concrete evidence of the existence of criminal networks like the one ELI had uncovered in Bolivia.

Surinamese authorities knew of cases of Chinese intermediaries paying hunters between $2,000 and $4,000 for a jaguar’s corpse, a veritable fortune for most of Ho Tsoi’s compatriots. Suriname is the second poorest country in South America with a GDP per capita of $4,869, according to the World Bank, and the third most unequal in the world behind South Africa and Namibia. A dead jaguar can mean nearly a whole year’s income for a hunter.

Infrastructure projects that have led to the building of new roads into previously inaccessible wilderness have enabled the spread of the jaguar trade in Suriname. Image by Santiago Wills. Suriname, 2023.

Reports of jaguar glue production in Suriname represent a new facet of the illegal wildlife trade there. The paste is a substitute for tiger glue, popular in Vietnam and Thailand for supposed health benefits. Image courtesy of World Animal Protection.

Ho Tsoi told me local authorities don’t know if the buyers were part of a larger criminal organization, because they didn’t have the resources to conduct a full-fledged investigation. For starters, they didn’t have any officers who spoke Hakka Chinese, Mandarin, or Cantonese, so there was no chance of an undercover operation, which would be required, given that the local Chinese community is closed to outsiders. Trainings like the one Trail was leading were useful to increase awareness among law enforcement, but can only go so far, he said. What is needed is more funds to investigate and increase vigilance at airports and roads, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, which boosted poaching in the interior and the demand for traditional Chinese medicine in Asia.

I had heard that silver- or gold-plated jaguar fangs were also sold as jewelry in the Maagdenstraat, a street near downtown Paramaribo that is lined with jewelry stores mostly owned by citizens of Chinese origin. One afternoon, I visited four jewelry stores there. Playing dumb, I asked the Chinese attendants if they had any feline teeth. They didn’t sell that sort of thing, they said dismissively.

LAST FALL, CROSTA SENT ME an overview of findings from ELI’s most recent undercover investigation in Suriname. It found that two organized criminal organizations connected to the mafia from China’s Fujian province were operating in the country. These groups were part of the same network involved in wildlife trafficking in Bolivia and with the trade of live tigers in Laos and the Golden Triangle. The criminal networks in Suriname rely primarily on local hunters, Crosta said. Often, these included infrastructure and mining-industry workers living in remote, newly created settlements. There was also evidence that a local organization linked to corrupt Surinamese politicians was hiring Indigenous Amerindians to hunt jaguars, incentivizing a shift from subsistence hunting to commercial hunting.

The poachers kill the animals, remove their hides, extract their teeth, clean their bones, and then transport all of those parts in buses or logging trucks towards Paramaribo, from where they are sent to Asia via Holland or, less frequently, the United States. These organizations are also involved in the shark fin trade, illegal gold mining, logging, money laundering, and human trafficking. According to Crosta, these groups have ties to other criminal organizations in Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana. “When CITES asked us for information, we could only share what we had on Bolivia,” Crosta told me, “but there’s much more going on.”

The Suriname Forest Service is ready for ELI to pass along the information, Roy Ho Tsoi said, when I reached him over the phone. He said the Surinamese government was cooperating with neighboring countries and with Chinese customs to prevent trafficking, and data from undercover investigators could help them to better allocate resources. Local law enforcement had been pursuing its own investigations, but so far none of the leads had panned out. Some people were fined, but, in most cases, traffickers were only admonished and allowed to go free.

Last November, Panthera’s van Lavieren and other experts published the “Suriname Jaguar Conservation Action Plan,” a document outlining a potential route to guarantee the feline’s preservation in the country. A similar project for the Barbary macaque had curbed its trafficking substantially in Morocco, van Lavieren said.

Meanwhile the government has been investing in several public and law enforcement awareness campaigns against jaguar poaching. Some campaigns targeted at the Chinese community highlight the repercussions that trafficking can have on their visa status, something polls found community members cared about the most. In December, a group of NGOs launched Go Wild for Wildlife, another chapter of the awareness campaign. Public figures, including Micle Fung, a renowned Chinese chef, and Ilonka Elmont, a kickboxing world champion, appeared in a wide variety of media advocating for the conservation of the jaguar and other emblematic species of Suriname. Van Lavieren says these campaigns have had meaningful impacts. Would-be opportunistic hunters now think twice before killing a jaguar because they knew there are legal and monetary consequences, she told me.

But despite her optimism, Suriname still has a long way to go when it comes to safeguarding its big cat population.

Several months after I left the country, Ho Tsoi sent me another video making the rounds in Surinamese social media. Another jaguar had been killed, this time near the coast. There was not much information in this case, no man speaking with bravado about his deeds as a hunter, even though this cat was much bigger.

When I first saw it, I noticed that the dead jaguar looked strange in the first few frames of the video. In the distance, there was something off about it. Then, as the person who was recording approached the corpse, I understood what was going on. The carcass, beautiful even in death, was headless.