Easter rush: Colombia’s wildlife-tracking dogs see booming business over holiday

Dino, a Labrador mix, looks for wildlife at a bus terminal in Bogota, Colombia. Easter week produces a surge in the wildlife trade here as pious Catholics replace red meat with exotic species like turtle and iguana.
Dino, a Labrador mix, looks for wildlife at a bus terminal in Bogota, Colombia. Easter week produces a surge in the wildlife trade here as pious Catholics replace red meat with exotic species like turtle and iguana. Miami Herald

As he trots through the capital’s busy bus station, Dino, a black Labrador mix, stops at a mound of luggage and begins to paw and whine at a lumpy tow-sack.

The two-year-old pup could be confused with one of the hundreds of bomb and drug-sniffing dogs that are ubiquitous here at airports and bus terminals, but Dino is on the hunt for something else entirely: pious Catholics.

Easter week in Latin America is one of the busiest holidays of the year as millions of people flow in and out of cities fleeing smog and visiting families. It’s also a week where many in this predominantly Catholic country give up red meat. That’s created a seasonal demand for the flesh of exotic animals — turtles, iguanas and armadillos, among them — to play the role of sanctioned protein.

Dino is one of four dogs in the country trained to track down wildlife. His sleek black snout has been fine-tuned to sniff out the most exotic of scents. He can identify turtles, iguana eggs, parrots and parakeets, monkeys and snakes, and all sorts of game meat.

In the last three days, authorities at the Bogotá bus station alone have impounded almost 20 pounds of turtle meat and hundreds of turtle and iguana eggs destined for Easter plates.

Semana Santa is something of a double-whammy for wildlife trafficking, said Carmen Rocío Gonzalez, spokesperson for the city’s environmental secretariat, which oversees the program. Not only is there the demand for exotic meat but many travelers, upon returning from their holidays, bring back inappropriate mementos.

“People go to rural areas and they come back with little animals as pets, like parrots, monkeys or turtles,” she said.

Within minutes of getting off his lunch break on a recent weekday, Dino makes an inadvertent bust: As he’s sniffing though a pile of luggage, he uncovers some bright green foliage in a black plastic bag.

Upon inspection, Juan Camilo Ordoñez, a botanist for the city, identifies the plants as two distinct species of orchids. Both are protected under Colombian law.

The woman carrying the plants says she was bringing them back to the capital to make an infusion or tea for a relative with a heart problem. She says she didn’t know she was breaking the law. The woman gets off with a citation, but Ordoñez puts her name onto a watch-list of potential wildlife smugglers.

“A lot of people are trafficking because there’s good money in it,” he said. “They know they are breaking the law but they just don’t care.”

Globally, wildlife trafficking is the third-most lucrative smuggling trade after drug and weapons running. But it’s unclear how big the problem is in biodiversity-rich Colombia.

During a conference last year, Environment Minister Gabriel Vallejo López said police had made more than 55,000 seizures of plants and animals during 2013 and 2014, and that the trade had the “same dimensions as illegal mining.”

There are also indications that guerrilla groups and criminal gangs, which have long relied on the drug trade to fill their coffers, are diversifying into illegal logging and wildlife contraband.

Turtles are particularly under pressure. The Environment Ministry estimates that two million Colombian slider turtles (Trachemys callirostris) are hunted every year. Seventy percent of them are exported to major cities in Colombia and Venezuela as food and for medicinal purposes — keeping the species struggling for survival.

The government has rolled out national advertising campaigns to try to break old traditions, and in some ways they seem to be working.

On a recent weekday, a mother and daughter brought in a small box turtle that the girl had been given as a gift. (Along with seizing contraband, environmental authorities at the bus station also receive animals.)

The girl cried as she handed over Morita, the 1-inch turtle, but she knew she was doing the right thing.

“I know it’s not a pet,” she said. “We don’t know how to take care of it.”

Live animals that are impounded are rehabilitated and then released in the wild.

It turned out to be a tough day for Dino. He didn’t find any major hauls of turtle meat and he was thrown off his game by a cardboard box full of rotting beef.

Still, the results are heartening enough that the government plans to expand the program in coming years, so canines like Dino can keep saving reptiles from humans.