Every year, thousands of saffron finches are taken from South American rainforests by traffickers and sold within Brazil through the illegal bird fighting market. Legal oversight is lacking, and there are concerns that the saffron finch population will continue to dwindle as they continue to be highly sought after for the trade.
These illegal fighting rings are known as rinhas, and bird owners and other participants gamble on a winner, with bets ranging from $10 to $167 USD. Saffron finches are specifically targeted due to their territorial nature, and they will often fight to the death when confined in small cages. This illegal trade is continuing to flourish due to lack of penalties for traffickers (as the bird is not currently classified as endangered). Further, Brazilian authorities struggle to apprehend the sellers due to the fragmented nature of this particular crime, with many groups continuing to emerge instead of a single enterprise. From 2018 to 2019, approximately 3 115 saffron finches were seized by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) while 4 365 were recovered by the Sao Paulo Environmental Military Police in 2020. These figures now give the saffron finch the infamous honour of being Brazil’s most apprehended bird. However, traffickers are still able to avoid punishment due to poorly enforced wildlife protection laws. Besides the fighting trade, these finches are also taken for competitive singing contests or for domestic use.
Male saffron finches used for these illegal fighting rings have their beaks sharpened beforehand, while one of the fighting birds will have a tiny silver hook fastened to its leg to maim its opponent. Before a fight, a female saffron finch (or an audio recording of one) is placed in or next to the cage to rile up the males. In the wild, the saffron finch that loses a fight is able to fly away but in the confines of a cage, the winner must assert its dominance over the other bird. If the losing bird is lucky enough to survive, they are often left either seriously injured or blinded through pecking. The birds are often kept in squalid, cramped cages. In 2018, police in Arequipa, Peru seized 581 saffron finches from a bus, where they were cramped together with no water or food and limited ventilation. Although the bus was heading towards Bolivia, Richard Thomas (Communications Coordinator of wildlife advocacy group TRAFFIC) suggests the final destination was Brazil: “It looks as if they were packed into the cages, and being wild birds, they certainly would have suffered high levels of stress.”
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It is likely that these saffron finches were to be sold for bird singing tournaments, where they are known as ‘canario da terra’ which are incredibly popular (and legal) in Brazil, or for the bird fighting trade. Brazil’s saffron finch traffickers operate primarily within the central-west, north-east and south-west regions of the country and sell to rural areas as well as large cities such as Sao Paulo. Sellers use traditional markets to sell the birds but also use Facebook and WhatsApp groups to sell saffron finches to their clientele, who often buy in bulk.
One way in which the illegal saffron finch trade thrives is through non-commercial breeders violating IBAMA’s self-declaration monitoring system, using false registrations and forging authorisation documents, allowing the laundering of saffron finches either snatched from the wild or sourced from the illegal market to be traded without detection by Brazilian authorities.
Traffickers will also often operate within their own homes or change warehouses often to avoid detection. An internal IBAMA assessment from 2015 discovered that 75% of all three million songbirds in their monitoring system have been included as a result of false documentation or forgery. In terms of how many wild songbirds are taken from the wild by traffickers, there is a significant lack of data from the Amazon, but experts claim that the figures are scarce. Juliana Ferreira, executive director of Freeland Brasil describes her frustrations at the lack of transparency and emphasis on this issue: “Significant seizures are made on a daily basis by Amazon state law enforcement, and we did not have access to their data. From what we saw, the illegal trade is even bigger than we imagined.”
Under Brazil’s 1998 Environmental Crime Law, those caught trafficking saffron finches are to receive a fine of $91 (USD) per bird as they are not classified as endangered; however these fines are rarely paid. A 2016 investigation by programme Fantástico followed one of Brazil’s most prolific wildlife traffickers, Valdivino Honório de Jesus, who was arrested thirteen times between 1996 and 2016. The programme followed his 14th arrest as authorities found dead birds in his freezer as well as live birds ready to be sold to the illegal trade. In spite of this, Jesus was released in under two hours. Wildlife traffickers rarely receive prison sentences and poor punishments allow them to resume their illegal activities with little fear of repercussions. Further, because saffron finches are commonly kept as pets, the practice flies under the radar so Rinhas are mainly investigated by tip-offs to police by concerned locals. Other challenges faced by authorities include a lack of resources and a lack of integration between agencies and governing forces.
The practice of Rinhas has spread out of Brazil into the USA over time. Saffron finches have been used in bird fighting rings from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. In 2009, 150 saffron finches were seized and 19 people arrested from all these locations. Regarding the Massachusetts bird fighting ring which was discovered, Brian Adams (a representative of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) says that Rinhas in the USA are more commonplace than publicly known: “It happens much more frequently than people imagine. It’s deep underground, very dark and deeply rooted. And it’s very difficult to infiltrate.”
Subspecies of the saffron finch are also being bred to produce larger, more aggressive fighters. The local species is known as Sicalis flaveola, however, larger subspecies known as S. Flaveola Flaveola (occurring in Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, French Guiana, Suriname, Trinidad and Suriname) and S. Flaveola Valida (native to Ecuador and Peru) are trafficked into Brazil to mate with the local species. “It’s a disaster. They’re creating something that doesn’t exist.” states Professor Luís Fábio Silveira, of University of São Paulo’s School of Zoology. It is feared that these locally created hybrids may cause damage to the ecosystem if released into the wild due to their susceptibility to spread disease.
Increasing penalties under the 1998 Environmental Crimes Law could be a significant way to decrease the wildlife trafficking trade. In fact, wildlife trafficking within Brazil is so commonplace that it turns over an average of $900 million USD per year, equating to 15% of all illegal profits globally. With data being so scarce, it is difficult to know just how many saffron finches are being snatched from the Amazon, but as the country’s most apprehended bird, it poses a concern for the species’ future within the Amazon’s already fragile ecosystem. Richard Thomas reiterates this point: “Just because a species is common doesn’t mean it’s safe. There’s no better example of the flaw in that thinking than the passenger pigeon, once the commonest birds in North America. The last one fell off its perch and died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.”
Culturally, wildlife trafficking has also been a difficult issue to combat due to the country’s love of exotic pets. For centuries it has been traditional and widespread throughout Brazil to keep wild pets domestically. Exotic domestic pets include snakes, lizards and even lions, tigers and bears with IBAMA registration. However, birds generally are the second most popular domestic animal of choice (after dogs) with 40 million birds estimated to be within Brazilian households. With a demand for wild pets steeped in cultural tradition, changing consumer behaviour is a challenging task for the authorities due the public desire not to start creating changes in legislation. Brazil’s exotic pet market is vast and rooted in the country’s cultural makeup. Since Portugal’s arrival to the continent in the 16th century, animals have been kept domestically and up until 1967, there were no laws to regulate wildlife trafficking. While there is a broad recognition of how vast and detrimental the Brazilian wildlife trafficking has become, there is still a lack of international recognition of the cruel treatment the saffron finch suffers in these illegal bird fighting rings. The current laws need to be enforced more thoroughly and there ought to be more of a public dialogue within the country to help shift current attitudes, not only to illuminate the cruelty of bird fighting but also highlight the ecological consequences over the long-term.
Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons