Pedro Krambeck was at his family’s country house on the outskirts of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, on July 6. There were no other family members with him, but the 22-year-old wasn’t alone.
A Naja, meaning cobra in Portuguese, accompanied Krambeck, a veterinary student. The venomous snake bit him and within hours, he was in coma, fighting for his life.
Ultimately, he survived. However, as the case reached national headlines, one question kept popping up: how did such an exotic and dangerous snake, whose habitat is in Asia and parts of Africa, find its way to the capital of the biggest country in South America?
The day after the snake bit the student, the Environmental Police found the animal alive in a box at a shopping mall’s parking lot. While Brazilians were furious on social media, pressuring the authorities to take action against the student who was endangering his community and innocent animals, the Federal Police was beginning to understand that this was part of a much larger case.
Days after the student had had his near-fatal incident and the Naja was apprehended, 16 other snakes were encountered under the possession of Krambeck — most of them dangerously venomous, and all of them in poor conditions. Authorities found that it was a friend of the student who was responsible for putting the Naja in the box and dropping it at the shopping mall.
Since then, the police have captured over 40 snakes, randomly let on the loose by people. It slowly unravelled that Krambeck and his friends, including a professor at his university, were part of a major online animal trafficking network. Hence, the desperation in getting rid of the animals before the police could link it to them. Thankfully, it was too late, and the Federal Police were able to connect them with the animals and fined them thousands of dollars. They are facing charges that may result in jail time. The animals are currently being treated at Brasilia’s Zoo.
Brazil, a hub for animal trafficking
The illegal trade in wildlife is worth up to US$ 19 billion each year and is the fourth largest illicit market after drugs, counterfeit, and human trafficking. Wildlife traffickers exploit the lack of restriction in the air transport sector to smuggle exotic live flora and fauna. The case in Brazil shed light on how big animal trafficking has grown with social media. Brazil has become a hub for it, both as an importer and an exporter. Most of the over 40 snakes apprehended by the Brazilian police come from abroad, with a lot coming from Asia and Africa as well.
What made the case of the Naja that bit Krambeck so appealing was the mystic aspect of it. People in South America tend to associate Naja’s image as the animals that emerge from baskets, dancing to the sounds of flutes. The idea that such a mystical and dangerous animal was freely circulating around the nation’s capital, exposed how simple it may be for these animals to get here. It is common for criminals to pay as low as $20 USD to small farmers in Asia for capturing these animals, thus starting one kind of a trafficking cycle.
After farmers capture the animals, preferably newborns, their journey across the world starts. They get to Brazil through air or sea to breed and to be commercialized. As the police are pushed to further investigate animal trafficking, other institutions have been on it for a while.
The Brazilian NGO Renctas (National Network to Fight Wildlife Traffic) has been investigating and publishing studies on the matter since the early 2000s — the same period where Brazil saw its internet boom and met its first social media websites. Renctas believes that animal trafficking extracts at least 38 million animals from their natural habitats to be commercialized every year. That generates an illegal industry estimated to trade US$600 million per year.
TRAFFIC, a UK-based nonprofit, states that millions of animals are illegally captured and traded live in the Brazilian black market, according to the 140-page report. “The pervasive and uncontrolled capture of wild animals and plants for the illegal trade is having grave consequences for Brazilian biodiversity, the national economy, the rule of law and good governance,” it says.
Runway to Extinction, another report by TRAFFIC, looks at trends and transit routes used by wildlife smugglers. The report highlights how “seizure data shows that many wildlife trafficking networks rely on the same smuggling methods over time, suggesting that a thorough understanding of airport-specific or country-specific trafficking patterns could be instrumental in reducing the air transport system’s vulnerability to trafficking.”
The role of social media in animal trafficking
Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported that in 2015, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment, Ibama, reached out to Facebook with a document that stated that the social network was involved in 95% of all animal trafficking happening in the country. According to Ibama, Facebook did not bother to assign a representative to deal with the claims or answer it at all.
Deciding to expose how Mark Zuckerberg’s website has been potentializing these environmental crimes, Ibama started to keep track and report every profile or group that was actively trading animals. In 9 months, between 2017 and 2018, Ibama identified 1277 posts of traders offering to sell wild animals. The police noted that the trade networks on Facebook and messaging apps, such as Whatsapp (owned by Facebook) and Telegram, were so deep-rooted and well-hidden through secret groups that it may take many years to unveil it. Several of the animals offered in these posts can also be found on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – CITES.
Endangered species, because of their rarity, have a higher demand on the illegal market. According to a study from ecologist Brunno Oliveira from the University of Florida, one out of every five endangered species is captured by traffickers. To make matters worse, Rectas calculates that 9 out of 10 animals die in transit due to the very poor conditions in which criminals transport them.
Data on trafficking is less since it is largely an underground operation and the privacy that social media offers makes it harder to access this data. Operation Dragon, a two-year effort from the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) in 2018, came across more than 20,000 turtles and tortoises for sale worth more than $3.2 million. “It was noted that on social media platforms like Facebook there was a significant amount of open and aggressive trader traffic posted,” the report from WJC said.
Since the Naja bit the veterinary student, Brazil’s Federal Police unleashed a nationwide operation to crack down on illegal animal possession. On August 12, a disguised police officer pretending to be interested in buying monkeys arrested a man and two women believed to be some of the country’s biggest traffickers. The police found several monkeys, parrots and other animals in their possession. Through anonymous tips and a promise of not facing any charges, pet owners voluntarily delivered their animals. Several other illegally owned pets emerged in the process, including sharks, turtles, and different types of rare fish. Thus far, 12 people were indicted along with Pedro Krambeck, his friends, and even his family members.
The police believe that Krambeck was at the center of the trafficking scheme, breeding and selling snakes for $100 USD each. When Krambeck left the hospital and headed to jail, journalists approached him with questions and cameras. He showed them his middle finger in response attitude that reflects how traffickers care about society and how confident they are while committing their crimes with the help of technology.
When several Brazilian news sources asked Facebook to comment on the situation, the company released a one-paragraph statement claiming it blocks traffickers when it identifies them. However, Reuters reported that the World Wildlife Fund counted 2143 animals from 94 species for sale on Facebook, in Myanmar alone. Investigations by the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO) have also shown that the algorithms on social media connect traffickers faster than moderators can remove them. Facebook, according to most activists, doesn’t do enough to search for these kinds of posts and remove them – its approach so far has been to remove the posts once people flag them.
Clearly, it is not blocking enough of them, as the market only grows, and authorities have a hard time tracking the complex, international web of criminals. Perhaps, the most venomous snake is not the one that dances to the flute after all.
India and animal trafficking
India is at the epicentre of the South Asian reptile trade. Star tortoises and black pond turtles, that are endangered, are smuggled to Thailand and Malaysia where they are sought after as pets. Since 2009, 111,312 individual tortoises or freshwater turtles were illegally traded across India, and up to 60% of seizures of tortoises or turtles, emerged from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Technology, social media, and a variety of communication tools naturally play an important role in bringing about wildlife trade by connecting a large nexus of middlemen and buyers in cities and towns with the hunters.
India is also one of the top 20 countries for illegal wildlife trade, as per data analysed by TRAFFIC. Chennai and Mumbai airports act as key points of contact for traffickers, according to a Runway to Extinction report. The involvement of airports is so much so that Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport has appointed a special wildlife cell in 2017 to handle the growing issue specifically.
About the author: Chris Goldenbaum is a Brazilian journalist covering everything related to Brazil. Chris’ work has appeared on Channel News Asia, National Geographic, VICE, among many other publications. Chris is also the Editor of Life & Politics at news app so.fa.dog