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How Ayahuasca Tourism Drives Jaguar Body Parts Trade

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How Ayahuasca Tourism Drives Jaguar Body Parts Trade
A jaguar in Mato Grosso Sur, Brazil. Steve Winter / National Geographic

By Mike Gaworecki

Jaguars face a number of threats, from habitat destruction and fragmentation for agriculture to poaching, trophy hunting and retaliatory killings by ranchers. The cats are estimated to have lost nearly half of their historic range and to have declined by as much as 20 to 25 percent over the past three generations, which is why the species is listed as nearly threatened on the IUCN Red List.


According to research published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice earlier this month, there may be an overlooked threat facing this most iconic of species: the booming ayahuasca tourism industry.

The trade in jaguar body parts is growing across Latin America, particularly in Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru and Suriname. Over the past few years, the most serious new threat to jaguars that has emerged is the illegal trade in jaguar fangs for the Chinese market. But according to a team of researchers led by Alexander Braczkowski of Australia's University of Queensland, "commercialized ayahuasca tourism may be an undervalued contributor to the trade" in jaguar body parts.

Jaguar skin for sale in the Passage Paquito section of Belen market, Iquitos. Steve Winter / National Geographic

"In Southeast Asia, jaguar claws and teeth are worn as jewellery; their skins are bought for home decor; and a glue paste (made from boiled jaguar parts) is consumed to heal various ailments," Braczkowski and co-authors write in the paper. "Most organized trafficking appears to be by contractors working for foreign companies hired to hunt cats to export body parts. With Latin America's current ayahuasca and shamanic tourist boom there are additional demands for jaguar products."

Braczkowski and the team conducted an investigation between August 2016 and August 2019 into the jaguar parts trade in markets in three Peruvian cities that are considered top ayahuasca tourism destinations: Lima, Iquitos and Pucallpa. They found jaguar skins for sale at prices ranging from $49 to $152, paws that could be purchased for $9, jaguar skin purses available for $6, and stuffed jaguars heads for which the asking price was anywhere from $30 to $91. Jaguar canines can fetch between $61 and $122 each.

"Every single place we went to look for jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, we found them," Sharon Guynup, a co-author of the paper, told Mongabay.

Jaguar teeth for sale in the Passage Paquito section of Belen market, Iquitos. Steve Winter / National Geographic

Through discussions with street vendors, shamans and people working in the tourism industry, the researchers found that jaguar canine pendants, jaguar skin bracelets and other jaguar products are being sold to tourists under the pretense that they somehow enhance the ayahuasca experience. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew made from the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chakruna leaves (Psychotria viridis). It has traditionally been used for spiritual and physical healing in ritual shamanic ceremonies, but has also become popular among recreational users in recent decades.

"This appears to be a case of rebranding, specifically using 'ayahuasca marketing' for sellers to charge a premium on jaguar parts," the researchers write in the paper. "Local indigenous shamans and healers from the Pucallpa area (Shipibo, Conibo, and Ashaninka ethnicities) denied the notion that jaguar parts enhance the ayahuasca experience for visiting tourists, and suggested that this practice is being marketed by 'charlatan shamans' seeking financial gain from the ayahuasca boom."

The researchers suggest that one way to effectively halt this growing illicit trade is to more formally regulate ayahuasca tourism and educate both tourists and tour operators. "The shamans we encountered in Iquitos and Pucallpa stressed the importance of the jaguar to the Amazon ecosystem and as a powerful totem in the spiritual world," they write in the paper. "The leadership of ayahuasca retreats could be important champions for jaguar conservation in Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, and other regions where ayahuasca is used, and they could discourage tourists from using jaguar parts."

Jaguar teeth and a jaguar skull for sale in a craft market in Yarinacocha Market, Pucallpa. Alex Braczkowski / Mongabay

Peru already has a national anti‐wildlife trafficking policy in place that punishes traffickers with a prison sentence of 3 to 5 years. Guynup said that, during their investigation of local markets, the researchers found a number of purveyors of jaguar products who exercised caution in their dealings with would-be buyers, suggesting that there has been some enforcement of anti-wildlife trafficking laws. But she called for the government of Peru to be more aggressive in enforcing its laws.

"The Peruvian government needs to recognize that this is happening and address it. There are good wildlife laws in Peru, I think they need to be better enforced and if they're not, there's very little reason for this trade to end," Guynup said.

"A big factor here is also education, for ayahuasca tourists and for tourists in general, not only on the plight of jaguars but the plight of endangered species in general. It's not that this trade is specifically [due to] ayahuasca tourism, there's a much broader trade that does include trade to Asia. But this is a piece of the puzzle and it's really important for potential consumers to be aware of this and not participate."

Jaguars in Mato Grosso Sur, Brazil. Steve Winter / National Geographic

Note: A co-author of the paper, Romi Castagnino, works for Mongabay LatAm. She had no editorial input on this article.

Reposted with permission from our media partner Mongabay.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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