Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira uses genetic data to fight illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil—a $2 billion-a-year business that affects 38 million animals. In 2012, Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to raise awareness of the devastating effects of keeping wild-caught songbirds, parrots and macaws—as well as to release rehabilitated animals and support rural communities vulnerable to wildlife traffickers.
This week, Ferreira was honored as a 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her work. We caught up with her to talk about her passion for conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.
First of all, congratulations on being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer! What does this mean for you and your work?
Thank you! It’s an immense honor to be recognized by my heroes, many of them responsible for me becoming a biologist. I was that kid — reading National Geographic, absolutely in love with every single animal I saw, and awed by every single picture. With this support and recognition, we’ll be able to reach 90 million people through National Geographic’s powerful platforms. This will help us make a huge impact in our battle against wildlife trafficking – especially the wild pet trade in Brazil. I could not be more excited and hopeful!
Tell us how you became interested in wildlife, and in birds, in particular.
During my master’s research at the University of São Paulo, when I was working with the population genetics of sub-Antarctic fur seals, I learned that there was a such a thing called wildlife forensics—the use of science in the legal prosecution of crimes involving wildlife. I was hooked instantly, and I convinced the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory to accept me as a volunteer for three months—a relationship that continued until 2013. Around the same time, I was introduced to Marcelo Rocha, president of the organization SOS Fauna, which combats wildlife trafficking in Brazil. With him, I learned about the illegal wild pet trade in Brazil—particularly the illegal domestic wild bird trade. So my PhD research—developed in collaboration with both these organizations—focused on developing population genetic studies for Brazilian wild bird species exploited by the illegal trade. The idea is that, if we can detect distinct genetic populations within each species, we’ll not only better understand the threat each species is facing, but we can produce data that might help guide future efforts to release rehabilitated animals seized from traffickers.
What is conservation genetics, and how is it related to wildlife forensics?
First, I should say that while I’m often billed as a forensic biologist, I am not one. I’m a conservation geneticist: I use concepts and techniques from genetics to develop studies aimed at understanding the current extinction rate of species—with the ultimate goal of conserving species as dynamic entities capable of adapting to environmental changes through evolutionary responses. Forensic biologists produce data that are used in court, in legal cases. At the moment, my work can’t technically be considered forensic because the genetic data I’ve produced has not been used in court. It may be included in future legal processes—but in order for this to happen, we still need to develop comprehensive databases of genetic profiles from exploited species populations. It will require extensive fieldwork to collect samples of blood, tissue, fur, feathers, and so on from many individuals from different populations.
Tell us more about the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil. What sorts of animals are typically removed from their ecosystems?
All kinds of animals get taken, but the most highly targeted group is birds—particularly song birds, parrots and macaws, which are extremely popular as pets. Small monkeys, sloths, reptiles and amphibians are popular, too. The Brazilian NGO RENCTAS—the National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals—estimates that more than 38 million animals are taken from the country annually by all kinds of wildlife trafficking including zoos and collectors, biopiracy and the pet trade. And that doesn’t count fish or invertebrates.
So this trade is primarily to a global market?
Actually, it’s important to note that, while global illegal wildlife trade is massive in monetary terms—about $20 billion a year—illegal trade between Brazilian states is several times bigger than what gets traded internationally from Brazil in terms of numbers of animals traded. And almost 83% of the seized wild animals in the illegal domestic trade are birds. But yes, a great many animals do get traded out of the country. Bear in mind that not all of it is illegal. Most species can be traded as long as permits are in order, and according to their CITES status. But it is very difficult to have reliable estimates of what gets traded illegally.
What are some of the social and environmental effects of the Brazilian illegal wildlife trade?
Taking animals out of their natural habitat raises four major concerns. First, it’s an activity that rewards criminal organizations while exploiting poor people from vulnerable communities, who collect the animals for traffickers. Secondly, animals are captured through violent methods and are transported in inhumane conditions—leading to broken beaks, feathers or legs. And every wild animal is a potential source of disease like rabies and tuberculosis that can infect humans.
Finally, exploiting even a single species can lead to the unbalancing of a whole ecosystem beyond its resilience limit, with serious consequences. Each living thing in the wild plays a specific role in the web of ecosystem interactions. When many animals are taken from nature regularly, they stop doing their jobs, whether they are predators, prey, pollinators, seed dispersers or seed predators. If too many of one species of bird are removed from a particular location, for example, local insect populations could explode, possibly even becoming pests for humans. And it’s not just animals that are affected: if a tree species depends on this bird to disperse its seeds, it will have reduced dispersal capacity. Therefore, all the species in the area that depend on this tree will end up suffering. In extreme cases, fewer trees and reduced ecosystem regeneration could even mean the region might experience soil erosion. The effects can be very far-reaching.
Taking too many of one species can also cause negative selection. For example, birds collected for their special qualities—beautiful feathers, singing ability—will no longer be there to pass on their unique gene combinations, which created this beautiful animal. Also, when fewer individuals are left to reproduce, the remaining population can become more genetically similar—the offspring will be related. Again, in extreme cases, this has the potential to make the remaining population more susceptible to disease, environmental changes and reproductive difficulties. There’s a term for this: “inbreeding depression.”
Can birds recovered from illegal trade be re-released into the wild?
Yes. Many times seized animals can be re-released into the wild, provided certain criteria are observed. The most important thing is that they need to be healthy and strong to face all the environmental challenges they’ll encounter in the wild. It’s also important that they’re healthy so that they won’t introduce diseases into the environment. They should also be able to recognize natural food sources and predators, display healthy reproductive behavior, and so on. They need to be strong enough to move around—birds need strong flight muscles, which often become atrophied when in captivity.
There are other environmental concerns. We have to be careful to release rehabilitated animals in an environment capable of supporting the new population with enough food sources and places to rest and nest, so as to not overcrowd the habitat of the natural populations. And animals should also always be released as close as possible to their collection site. Animals can become adapted to characteristics of the places they live—such as rain regimes, temperature, seasonal food sources and so on. If they’re released in places with different characteristics, they may not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. Finally, releasing animals into genetic populations different from the one from which they were captured can cause more harm than good, causing a phenomenon called “outbreeding depression.”
What does that mean?
Sometimes differentiated populations within a species are adapted to specific local geographic conditions, or may have developed blocks of genes that function well together but not so well with different blocks of genes. So, depending on the degree of differentiation, if animals from different populations were to mix and reproduce, their offspring might present a decrease in their ability to cope with environmental challenges. That’s why we have to figure out the most probable origin of seized and rehabilitated animals to be released.
In the TED talk you gave at the Fellows retreat, you raised the possibility of an alternative pet trade economy involving captive-bred birds. From the outside, that seems a sustainable solution. What are your views?
Yes, in theory, captive breeding of wild species could potentially supply the consumer market for wild pets. But there are two points worth mentioning. First, domestication should not be confused with taming, which is to increase a wild animal´s tolerance to humans. Captive-bred animals are still wild species. The biggest difference between wild and domestic species is that the latter—like dogs, cats, goats, pigs—have been artificially selected by humans for thousands of years, and have different genetic and phenotypic traits from their wild ancestors. They are also dependent on humans. In contrast, captive-bred animals continue to present strong instincts like mating, dispersing, defending territories, searching for natural food sources, and so forth. So keeping such animals in cages or restricted spaces—often alone and with inadequate food sources—for the sake of human vanity or entertainment is, in my opinion, a violation of the animal’s well-being.
From a species and environmental conservation point of view, legal commercial captive breeding requires intense enforcement and control or it can backfire, as has been happening in Brazil. Dishonest “breeders” find that it’s much cheaper and easier to collect wild animals from nature illegally, and pass them off as captive bred in the market. Criminals can even profit from this, as legally captive-bred animals are sold for much higher prices. It’s very difficult to detect and prove the existence of such schemes, and even when criminals are caught, penalties are exceedingly light. Personally, I’m against keeping wild animals as pets. We should instead be spending our resources and energy in conserving a healthy environment where species can continue to evolve in response to environmental changes. But if it’s going to happen, I think that at least paternity exclusion tests should be compulsory, and paid for by breeders.
As concerned consumers, what should we do if we see birds or other animals that we think might be being illegally traded?
Illegal animals make it to all continents, so first, be informed about which species can be legally bought in our home countries and where those animals come from. Ask for documentation, and do everything in reach to ensure the legal origin of that animal. If you have reason to believe that an animal may have been poached, contact law enforcement and your nation’s environmental department. If you think they may be corrupt, this may not be enough. In that case, contact the media and nonprofit organizations that deal with wildlife trafficking, or at least with environmental conservation. And ideally, if you want a pet, adopt a stray dog or cat instead—and travel to see wild species in their natural environment.
Your work encompasses so many different approaches to conservation. I’m curious: what’s a typical day like for you?
I don’t have such a thing as a typical day! I might be in the field with my colleagues catching birds with mist nets to sample drops of blood for my genetics studies. I might be in the lab with my advisor and my student doing hand-on science and population genetics. I might be out in the field with SOS Fauna on raids or doing investigation work—or giving lectures to students, or organizing a workshop with the prosecutor’s office or the federal police. Lately, my typical day has been working as much as possible from my home office while looking after my 5-month old baby.