Biology student Luis Sibira stumbled across the first set of gory remains last November: eight pink flamingos, their breasts and torsos sliced out, leaving their heads, spindly legs and vivid feathers scattered across the marshy ground at Las Peonias Lagoon in western Venezuela.
Flamingo hunting is both illegal and unusual at the lagoon, less than 200 miles from the Colombian border. Sibera, who had been studying the pink birds that nest there for years, had never seen anything remotely like that before.
Since then, though, he's seen at least 20 similar cases, most recently in January, when he found several carcasses hidden under shrubs, with a shotgun shell nearby.
But this isn’t simple poaching, he said. Sibira and other investigators from Zulia University, a public university in Maracaibo, are convinced that the protected birds have become the latest victims of Venezuela's growing hunger crisis. People have become so desperate, he said, that they are butchering and eating flamingos.
There are other signs that food shortages have led to the slaughtering of animals not generally considered meat: giant anteaters, for one. The university investigators — biologists and biology students — say they have kept records to show that dozens of the slow-moving creatures, classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, also have been killed for food.
In the city’s dump, more evidence of hunger-driven desperation: dismembered dogs, cats, donkeys, horses and pigeons have been found since last year, all skinned or plucked, with signs of having been eaten, according to the city’s garbage teams.
“Sometimes we only find the animal’s heads, guts and legs. We used to see this very little in the past, but this practice is now out of control and on the rise,” said Robert Linares, who works in waste disposal at the dump for the city.
A day earlier, he said, he’d found the remains of a dog, skinned and dismembered on the streets of Santa Lucia.
The ‘Maduro diet’
Under President Nicolas Maduro, the once-wealthy country has been plagued with the worst inflation rate in the world, close to 700 per cent last year, according to International Monetary Fund. A survey by three universities in Caracas found that 87 percent of Venezuelans in 2015 didn’t have enough money to buy sufficient food for their families. Not having enough to eat has become so common it even has a nickname: “the Maduro diet.”
Ricardo Boscan, the head of Maracaibo’s waste collection department, said that six out of every 10 garbage bags or trash cans are being looted by hungry people.
“The situation has gotten worse since 2015," he said. "It’s happening because hunger is rising to a massive scale.”
But resorting to flamingos is something new.
In Los Olivitos’ marsh, a 125-square-mile refuge close to Las Peonias, at least 10,000 flamingos live, one of the only three such spots in Venezuela. While locals were known to feed on their eggs, killing them for food was unheard of. The indigenous people in the area, mainly Wayuu families, have denied killing the birds.
“Venezuelan Indians never ate this kind of animals, not even in times of the [Spanish] conquest," said Angel Viloria, a biologist and the head of Venezuela’s Scientific Studies Institute. "This new behavior comes out of the pressure to eat.”
In years past, the country’s culinary habits in rural areas have sometimes included deer, iguanas and wild birds — but not exotic birds such as flamingos.
The need for protein
The Zulia professors — including Viloria, Tito Barrios, Angelica Barrios and Miguel Angel Campos — say they are also keeping a record of dozens of cases of giant anteaters being killed for food. The giant anteater is being hunted in impoverished towns on the eastern banks of Lake Maracaibo, Viloria confirmed after numerous visits to the region.
Anteaters are slow and relatively docile animals, despite their claws and threatening looks. They can easily be caught by groups of two or three people with sticks.
Doris Rubio, CEO of the Venezuela-based Animal Protection Association, is alarmed. But she also understands what’s going on.
“We find these killings grotesque, but how can we be critical of someone who hunts a pigeon, a dog, a cat or any animal because he or she is hungry?” she asked. “People used to hunt lizards for sport. Now they do it out of necessity.”
Eating the flesh of domestic and wild animals poses health risks, warned Hugo Hernandez, a veterinary sciences professor in University of Zulia. They can contain bacteria and viruses that could be deadly.
“In France, they eat horses and in China they eat dogs and cats, but after being raised according to sanitary programs," Hernandez said. "In our country, these animals are being hunted in the wild or in the streets and cannot be consumed by humans."
In the past, it wasn't uncommon to see a homeless or mentally ill person searching through the garbage, but scavenging for food has become widespread. People are often seen looking for discarded eggs, cookies, milk, flour, breads, broccoli stems, beet leaves or expired butter, said Campos, a sociologist at Zulia.
For most families, healthy meals are simply out of reach. Two pounds of sugar or corn flour, for example, cost about 7,800 bolivares, or $2 dollars, on the black market. And two pounds of premium meat runs 10,000 bolivares. Those three items alone represent more than half the official monthly minimum wage of 40,000 bolivares, or $11 dollars.
“Many people have no access to basic food or rely on a monotonous diet that consists of only two or three items," said the CEO of the Venezuelan Observatory for Health, Marianela Herrera. To eat three times a day is a luxury in Venezuela, she added.
Life on the streets
Luis Enrique Guerra, a skinny 12-year-old, swims every morning in the polluted waters of Lake Maracaibo with his friends. They live on the streets and try to find small jobs in nearby stores. But when there's no money or work, they hunt.
“I have killed like 20 little pigeons," he said, proud of his skills. "Yesterday I killed a duck in the water. It tried to bite me, but I twisted its neck with my bare hands.”
He and his crew chase down parrots, chickens, crabs and snails to cook over wood in rusty pans.
To catch their prey, they set up traps with tiny ropes and bait or prepare sticks with glue on their point.
“We smack them twice in the heads or twist their necks,” the children said. There are rumors that people are eating vultures, too, known in Venezuela as zamuros, but the children denied it.
“Eww! Those birds feed on dead things!” they said.
A few days earlier, they said, they watched a local villager, or guajiro, eat a small alligator, or babilla.
Luis Enrique said he won’t ever eat that kind of animal, but admits he loves lizards. “Hmmm, yummy! They taste great, like chicken. I even drink their blood!” he yelled, while rubbing his stomach, a huge smile on his face.
But what they hunt down isn’t enough to ease their hunger, said Andres, a 10-year-old boy in the group, as he peeled an old mandarin orange.
"I have been hungry for many days," he said.