In the Amazon jungle criminal groups are illegally trafficking thousands of endangered monkeys, crocodiles and big cats every year with impunity.
The Amazon rainforest is the most important ecosystem on the plan. It's home to a third of the world's animal species but the United Nations says the situation for its wildlife is now critical. I'm heading to Iquitos which is in the Amazon basin and that’s because I've been told that this is the epicentre when it comes to smuggling wildlife and it's easy to see why cause when I look around this river this forest is just teaming with life and it's a maze of waterways which you could smuggle anything through and nobody would have a clue.
Every year thousands of animals are captured illegally from the rain forest and trafficked through the remote frontier town of Iquitos and on to a global market in exotic pets. In this part of Peru, many regard animals from the rainforest as commodities. It's illegal to catch and sell these wild animals without a permit but all sorts of species, even endangered ones, are openly sold for food. So I get my first flavour of a market here and straight away I spotted some bush meat. There's a crocodile over there, blatantly on display. Look at that.
REPORTER (Translation): Excuse me. What’s this?
WOMAN (Translation): Caiman.
So this is the tail of the caiman, so there’s bush meat all around me. But there's a much more lucrative trade. Wildlife trafficking. After a few simple inquiries, we're told about a woman who runs a stall selling bush meat but who also offers live animals for the exotic pet trade. We have set up a meeting with a market trader. We can't film her openly with a camera because there might be some hostility from the other market traders and her as well. So I'm wearing a hidden camera.
We've and to meet a woman known locally as Senora Nati. She arrives and asked us to follow her to her home nearby.
REPORTER (Translation): How’s it going?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Fine.
I tell her I'm looking to buy exotic animals for my private collection, but I need to check first they'll survive the colder climate in the UK. So we say we need video of the animals to send to an expert. That backs up what I film on my secret camera. I have no idea what to expect.
REPORTER (Translation): Let’s see them.
SENORA NATI (Translation): Show it to them.
REPORTER: It’s a snake, wow!
SENORA NATI (Translation): If you raise it as a baby it stays placid.
REPORTER: What type of snake is this?
SENORA NATI (Translation): This is like a rainbow.
REPORTER: It's a rainbow snake. Wow.
SENORA NATI (Translation): Baby tortoise.
These are all protected animals.
SENORA NATI (Translation): Here I’ve got these.
REPORTER: How big does this grow, this one?
SENORA NATI (Translation): This big.
These are caiman. They grow up to 2m long and they're under threat of becoming endangered. The animals on offer are illegal to sell without a permit. Lifting the lid of a wheelie bin she reveals even more.
REPORTER: Wow! What are these called?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Red caiman lizard.
REPORTER: That's a crocodile, in there? How many in there?
SENORA NATI (Translation): One, two, three, four, five. Six with this one.
REPORTER: How much?
SENORA NATI (Translation): 100 soles each.
And Senora Nati isn't finished yet. She brings out a box full of baby monkeys.
SENORA NATI (Translation): Here are the little monkeys.
They're tamarins, highly prized as an exotic pet, also under threat of becoming endangered.
REPORTER: How many of these do you have?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Four.
She also has a pygmy marmoset, the smallest monkey in the world.
REPORTER: Why has it got the wire? Doesn’t it hurt him?
SENORA NATI (Translation): No. Because otherwise he runs away. There’s also a big monkey.
REPORTER: You have a bigger monkey? Yes, you mentioned a bigger monkey.
SENORA NATI (Translation): I will bring it. But the police are around, the police will take them from us.
REPORTER: So is it illegal for you to have animals?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Here we work in secret.
REPORTER: So to take them back to the UK? What do I need to do? What's the best way?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Those small monkeys… here I’ve got these, you give them half so they sleep.
REPORTER (Translation): Half?
SENORA NATI (Translation): just half.
REPORTER (Translation): And they won’t die?
SENORA NATI (Translation): They won’t die.
REPORTER (Translation): Where does he hide it?
SENORA NATI (Translation): It has to go in a box.
REPORTER (Translation): A small box, like a shoe box?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Like a shoe box.
Nati suggests we drug the monkeys with sleeping pills. She also claims there's another way of getting the animals out of the country.
REPORTER (Translation): And can we get papers?
SENORA NATI (Translation): If you want official papers they are expensive.
REPORTER (Translation): But can we?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Yes, get the papers and take it.
REPORTER (Translation): How do you get them?
SENORA NATI (Translation): you go to the police station, that’s the place to get the papers.
REPORTER (Translation): So you have to give them…?
SENORA NATI (Translation): Money.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you have a contact there?
SENORA NATI (Translation): No.
She seems to be saying we can bribe the authorities. Nati has promised to show me a large monkey but in fact it's a kinkajou, an animal related to the raccoon.
REPORTER (Translation): We have to send the photos to the experts and I will call you.
SENORA NATI (Translation): What about an advance?
They start pressuring us for cash. It's time for us to go. That was so intense. I've never seen anything like it. And that woman was selling animals like they were pieces of fruit. Those animals were absolutely petrified. The monkeys, when she was pulling them apart, they were screaming and I could see in their eyes they were terrified. It was just so bizarre.
I meet up with Noga Shanee, a primatologist, to see if she can help me get my head around what I saw at Senora Nati's house.
REPORTER: Can we have a look?
NOGA SHANEE, PRIMATOLOGIST: They're all juvenile.
REPORTER: The noises they're making, are they distressed sounds?
NOGA SHANEE: This is screaming. They're really afraid. Every time that she pulls them, they just want to hold something. All these animals, all the monkeys, the only way to get them, they must shoot their mother.
It's estimated for every baby primate that's taken from the wild, half a dozen more are killed in the process. 30,000 primates die in this way every year.
NOGA SHANEE: They fall down and about half of them die from the fall or from the bullet. So they have to kill another mother and another mother.
REPORTER: When you see this type of trafficking on this scale, what goes through your mind?
NOGA SHANEE: The main thing I feel is she needs to go to jail. It needs to stop.
Noga is also a wildlife activist who specialises in exposing illegal traffickers. That night she reports our findings to the environmental prosecutor who agrees to act. She also calls Senora Nati, pretending to be a foreign buyer and sets up a meeting in two days' time when the police will be ready to carry out a sting operation. Meanwhile, Noga wants me to see some of the victims of the illegal pet trade, so we visit a sanctuary where animals that she rescued in the past have been sent.
REPORTER: Look at that. It's checking me out.
NOGA SHANEE: This monkey is one of the monkeys I brought here.
REPORTER: In Spanish this is a tigrillo or an ocelot. So where did you find this tigrillo?
NOGA SHANEE: One day the authorities called me, they confiscated six animals. And all of these animals were in the most horrible conditions. He had four or five fractures in his bones. He couldn't even walk one step.
REPORTER: He is trying to take my wheels. I'm being groomed by a monkey.
Pilpintuwasi wildlife refuge is run by Gudrun Sperrer. Every animal here was rescued from either traffickers or people who kept them illegally as pets.
REPORTER: So how big a problem is it, poaching of animals and monkey especially?
GUDRUN SPERRER, PILPINTUWASI WILDLIFE REFUGE: All Peruvian monkeys, all the species in Peru are already vulnerable, they should be protected. And it’s partly the poaching, but people always used to hunt monkeys for food, now the big problem is the hunting for pet trade, because it means - even my workers tell me there are people coming to the hunters in the village and telling them, you know, when you go hunting try to kill a mother. You eat the mother and you sell me the baby.
REPORTER: So who buys these monkeys?
GUDRUN SPERRER: People who have money and no brain and sometimes also people who think they're rescuing them by buying them at the market. I will buy it to save it. But by paying for the animal they've actually created a market that didn't even exist 20 years ago.
Well-meaning tourists are making matters worse. But there's a major international trade in exotic wildlife. The UN claims it's the fourth biggest illegal industry in the world. Despite seizing around 4,000 animals a year, Noga says the Peruvian authorities have never put a single trafficker behind bars. She believes it's because wildlife is low on the political agenda.
REPORTER: If nothing is done, and the poaching continues at the rate that it's going, what's going to happen in Peru?
NOGA SHANEE: We are in big shit basically. There is not much hope. There's no question if it's going like this.
REPORTER: It just leapt! That was mad.
It's bad enough to think of species being lost from the Amazon rainforest but because the ecosystem is so fragile, it could have devastating effects. It's a beautiful place. It still makes me sad to think that all of those animals, all the trauma they've been through, at least they get some peace for a little part of their lives here.
We head back to Iquitos with Noga. She's working with the police to prepare for tomorrows sting operation on the wildlife trafficker we secretly filmed. Shortly after dawn, we meet her at a cheap hotel in Iquitos. Noga is posing as a buyer, waiting to meet Senora Nati. The woman is coming here hoping to sell animals but what she doesn't know is that there will be plain clothed police people waiting to arrest her for wildlife trafficking.
What Noga is doing is pretty dangerous because although she's in the room next door to us, momentarily she is going to be on her own with this lady and anything could happen. If all goes to plan, armed undercover police will make the arrest. Liz Macedo Davida is the prosecutor who will build the case.
LIZ MACEDO DAVIDA, PROSECUTOR (Translation): I don’t want any mistakes or they’ll object to the arrest at the hearing.
It's not long now. The operation is about to start. What's really crucial is that this woman is seen receiving money for these animals because if she is then her crime goes up from handling to selling.
Noga's fight against animal traffickers means that some of them know her. She decides to cover her distinctive curly hair with a towel. Next door, she places a hidden camera in her room to try and capture the moment when Senora Nati accepts the money, if she turns up. One of the other officers is in contact with a spotter outside the hotel.
LIZ MACEDO DAVIDA (Translation): Do you know what she is wearing?
OFFICER (Translation): Short hair…
LIZ MACEDO DAVIDA (Translation): He says the lady has short hair. It’s her, he says. She is coming now.
This is a pretty heavy moment because the woman has arrived and she's with Noga right now and we're just waiting for the go ahead to go in there. The commanding officer arrives. He will lead the operation.
NOGA SHANEE (Translation): Let’s have a look at your monkeys. Let’s start there.
SENORA NATI (Translation): Look, these are the monkeys, these go in your hair.
NOGA SHANEE (Translation): it’s beautiful.
We can actually hear the monkeys the woman is trying to sell.
NOGA SHANEE (Translation): Any more monkeys?
SENORA NATI (Translation): No.
NOGA SHANEE (Translation): I will give you this, so we are square.
The deal's been done. Now we just have to wait for Noga's call.
NOGA SHANEE: Can you come, we are ready.
LIZ MACEDO DAVIDA: OK.
SENORA NATI (Translation): These are the chameleons.
It's time for action. Here we go. Go. Go. Go.
OFFICER (Translation): Good day madam. Please get up. Put yourself there.
There's animals everywhere. Monkeys. There's some lizards on the floor.
SENORA NATI (Translation): They are just my things.
OFFICER (Translation): Understand madam, you have committed a crime and your crime has led to this. Now your things are being confiscated and in the Prosecutor’s Office we will decide what to do with you.
As Senora Nati's taken to the prosecutor's office, Noga takes a closer look at the animals.
REPORTER: How old do you think this one is?
NOGA SHANEE: Less than a month old. He is really thirsty.
REPORTER: Wow. He's drinking so hard.
It's just heartbreaking to think that this poor little monkey is less than a month old was stored in a box in its own blood and own faeces and was taken away from its parents. It's traumatised. Look at it. The rescued animals are rushed across town to a vet for health checks.
VET (Translation): This monkey’s a Capuchin. He’s only a month old. No more than that. We know the age by its belly button which finished healing about a week ago. He had a…a maggot growing in his leg. This too is very young, it needs vitamins. She has an ulcer in her eye. Something hit her, that’s why she’s got tears in her eyes. She needs some antibiotics.
One of the tamarins is in a critical condition. This monkey has been tied up to stop it from escaping but they've had to take the tie off because it's scarring. In all, Noga's rescued 20 animals from nine different species, including the monkeys, iguanas, caimans, turtles, parrots and agoutis. Now Noga’s going back to the prosecutor’s office because she’s going to try and build a case against this woman who tried to sell her the animals, and then the animals are going to be sent to a sanctuary and we’re going to try and catch up with them there, but all-in-all, it’s been a really emotional day, so dramatic.
It's my last day in Iquitos and while the prosecution builds the case against Senora Nati, I catch up with the lead environmental prosecutor for the region, Pablo Ormeno Quiroz.
REPORTER: Why are you relying on evidence and information brought by people like Noga? Why isn’t your office doing and gathering this information themselves?
PABLO ORMENO QUIROZ, ENVIRONMENTAL PROSECUTOR (Translation): We must remember that Iquitos is a small city, it’s almost an island, a place where everybody knows everybody. As such they know the authorities and who the police are. There have been past cases where police officers and representatives of the Attorney General’s office have carried out operations and the locals start to crowd round and surround the police officers. All the street sellers, at the time of an operation gang up on us to attack us. There’s also the problem of informants within the police. They can hinder us when we organise an operation, the criminals already have knowledge of it.
REPORTER: It was suggested to us by a trafficker that we spoke to that it was possible to buy a permit to take illegally trafficked and endangered animals on aeroplanes from corrupt police officers.
PABLO ORMENO QUIROZ (Translation): I think it happens here and everywhere else too. There are always bad elements within the police and the regional government that allow these illegal permits to be issued.
REPORTER: So you do agree that there is corruption in your system which is preventing you from stopping illegal wildlife trafficking?
PABLO ORMENO QUIROZ (Translation): Yes, there’s corruption within some of the agencies that are supposed to be fighting against these illegal activities.
Before we head off, I want to see how the rescued animals are getting on. They're being held in quarantine at the Pilpintuwasi rescue centre.
REPORTER: How are they doing then? How is she physically?
GUDRUN SPERRER: She is definitely already better. She's strong. She holds on very well and she is very hungry.
REPORTER: It’s hard to ask this but how close to death do these animals, were they? If they hadn't been rescued?
GUDRUN SPERRER: A few days at the most I think.
REPORTER: It feels like there's so many animals that are being trafficked that it's kind of an uphill battle for you guys. How much satisfaction do you get out of saving individual animals?
NOGA SHANEE: Every baby like this is important to save. And every person that goes to jail or being threatened seriously of going to jail understands and then there's less. I don't think we're winning but we're doing something. Let’s go ladies, let’s go.
Senora Nati, the woman we helped to catch, was convicted of wildlife trafficking and given the maximum sentence available. She walked free with a suspended sentence and a fine. No animal traffickers in Peru have ever been imprisoned. For the moment the Peruvian authorities are offering almost no protection to the country's invaluable wildlife.
2nd May 2017