Photographing Trafficked Animals in Colombia

Photographing Trafficked Animals in Colombia

Ivan Valencia grew up lucky, a nature lover on a coral island off Colombia’s Caribbean coast who also got to travel to a mainland of staggering natural richness, almost a world unto itself.

From San Andrés, a paradise of reefs, cays and atolls, Mr. Valencia visited the cities, forests and savannas of Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth. (It is second to Brazil, whose land is seven times larger.) He knew that Colombia is home to more bird species than anywhere else and to practically every type of ecosystem on the planet.

It was only a matter of time before he found himself trying to help protect it with his camera.

Mr. Valencia, 27, is a freelance photographer based mainly in Bogotá for Bloomberg, The Associated Press and National Geographic, among others. He spends his free time documenting wildlife rescued from traffickers.

“I’ve covered conflict, migration and wildlife within my country,” he said. “I worry about being the voice of the victims, documenting and showing the impact of the crisis in areas forgotten by the government to people who are not yet informed.”

The world may be familiar with the plight of African elephants and rhinos, which have been hunted to the brink of extinction for their tusks and horns, but many may not realize that illegal animal trafficking happens everywhere. As Mr. Valencia has learned in the six years since he started photographing rescued creatures in zoos, shelters and other sanctuaries, it is an enormous issue in his country.

Colombia’s rich wildlife has made it irresistible to illegal animal traffickers. The trade of protected animals is Colombia’s third largest illegal industry after drugs and human smuggling. (And it is the world’s fourth, after drugs, arms and human trafficking.) Exotic birds, monkeys, frogs, turtles, pythons — animals desired as pets, meat, aphrodisiacs or for their skins — are all unfair game. According to the latest figures, Colombian officials and wildlife rescue groups saved more than 23,000 animals from traffickers in 2017 alone.

Untold numbers of animals — estimates vary — were shipped, flown or trucked from their habitats for the amusement and/or consumption of humans, both within and outside of Colombia. Traffickers use many of the same techniques and escape routes, including roads, tunnels and byways, created by drug smugglers during Pablo Escobar’s heyday.

For Mr. Valencia, whose mother, a journalist and war photographer, taught him by example to comfort the afflicted, photographing rescued wildlife is his passion project. It began with a haunting experience at a wildlife rescue shelter in Bogotá six years ago. “It was very sad, no doubt,” he said, “but the moment that caught my attention was to see a macaw without a beak who was trying to eat but could not. It is as if my eyes had been removed, so as not to take more photos. The traffickers cut it to avoid being bitten. Animals do not cry like humans, but you can really feel their pain and suffering just by looking at them.”

From that moment, he said, he decided to champion the animals and expose the trafficking. The project is ongoing, and he plans to document all aspects of trafficking, not just the rescues. But for impact, he said, he has focused on documenting rescued wildlife bearing the scars and injuries of their ordeal.

Among his portfolio of animals in various stages of rescue, his startling portraits of them against a black background stand out: a sparrowhawk that can no longer fly because a trafficker shot it in its wing, a morrocoy turtle missing pieces of its shell, one capuchin monkey that had lost an arm and another that had lost half a tail after both were brutally handled.

“The world must know that we are part of the ecosystem, that animals are wonderful beings full of feelings,” Mr. Valencia said. “It does not matter if it is wild or domestic, whether it is in Colombia or anywhere in the world, we must be forgiven by the planet that increasingly takes away resources because of our actions. In a very short time we will not be able to see them or admire them anymore.”

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