Bird smugglers caught with invasive species used for finch fighting

Sicalis flaveola brasiliensis
© Umbrios1

When you think of finches, you don't usually imagine them fighting each other to the death. But that was the purpose that drove smugglers to illegally transport the birds from Peru to Brazil. The birds were shipped in suitcases in the unpressurized cargo area of the plane, resulting in the death of over 50 birds.

Mariana Albuquerque, a criminologist for the Federal Police of Brazil, recently shared photos from the case with TreeHugger. "Smugglers can obtain those birds cheaply, so they don't care if a few... or a lot die." The smuggler was apprehended at the Guarulhos International airport with suitcases full of birds.

The smuggled birds are Peruvian finches (Sicalis flaveola valida), an invasive subspecies that is illegal to bring into Brazil. They're a threat to the smaller native finches (Sicalis flaveola brasiliensis), which is no doubt what appeals to the people who wish to make the birds fight. In the photo below, you can see how much smaller the Brazilian bird is next to the Peruvian bird. In a fight, it has scarcely any chance against Peruvian finches, said Albuquerque. Both birds are subspecies of the saffron finch.

The birds are transported in checked suitcases and crates. The cargo hold of the plane isn't pressurized or temperature controlled, and many birds die during the flight. "A few of them, though in bad shape, survive the trip," said Albuquerque. "The smugglers profit enough from those to keep doing business."

In Brazil, canary fighting is in decline. "It's an old man's pastime," said Albuquerque. Last year, a canary fighting ring was uncovered, resulting in the arrests of 30 people, none of whom were younger than 50. Yet even with this decline, the environmental threat to the native population of canaries is grave. As in a fight, the larger and more aggressive finch has an advantage in the wild. If the imported birds escape or are released, they could wipe out the native population of wild finches. The two subspecies could also hybridize.

Sadly, it isn't only illegal birds that are subjected to cruel conditions at the hands of smugglers. In one case, smugglers were caught with birds from Europe that are legal to import. "The custom fees for entering with all those birds legally would have been less than 50 dollars," said Albuquerque. Her theory is that smugglers don't bother to find out which birds might be legal to transport. "The laws about wild native birds are very different from the laws about domesticated foreign birds, but if one doesn't want to bother looking it up, that person may think that bringing any bird to or from Brazil is illegal."

birds smuggled in luggage© Umbrios1

Albuquerque said that birds are the most commonly smuggled animals in Brazil. The federal operation in São Paulo alone rescued about 2,000 animals last year, the majority of which were birds. However, state-level police departments do more work in fighting smugglers, and rescue thousands more animals each year. "The Federal Police works only in cases where we can prove the animals are being smuggled across state frontiers or are being smuggled internationally," said Albuquerque.

"Sometimes smugglers are a bit more careful," said Albuquerque. This smuggler shown below transported fertilized eggs in this rather innovate vest, to keep the unhatched birds alive. "I blacked out the face of the smuggler, but I kept his sarcastic smile. He was so sure that he wouldn't be arrested."

Most smuggled birds are destined for the pet trade, not the fighting ring, although canary fighting does exist in the U.S. Albuquerque hopes that if more people know about the realities of smuggling, fewer people will be willing to own illegal pets. "The USA is one of the greatest consumer markets for smuggled animals, so divulging how badly the animals are mistreated by smugglers is one of the best ways of preventing it."

Bird smugglers caught with invasive species used for finch fighting
Dozens of birds die in transportation, while the survivors face an equally tragic destination.

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