By Pedro Fonseca and Stuart Grudgings
RIO DE JANEIRO, March 11 (Reuters) - Brazilian federal police arrested 72 people on Wednesday on suspicion of running an international smuggling ring that traded half a million wild animals, including jaguars and monkeys, each year.
Police said it was the biggest single operation in the past decade against rampant illegal wildlife traffic in the South American country. Brazil is one of the world’s hotspots for animal smuggling because of its rich diversity of animals.
The arrests, which were mostly in Rio de Janeiro and included a Czech national, followed an investigation lasting more than a year into the ring, which had buyers for exotic animals in the United States, Europe and Asia, police said.
Authorities were still searching for 30 suspects, including five sought by international police agency Interpol in Switzerland, Portugal and the Czech Republic.
"It’s definitely the biggest operation in the past 10 years. We had 102 arrest warrants, but we couldn’t follow through on all of them," Andre de Luna, a federal police agent involved in the crackdown, told Reuters.
Some 450 officers in nine Brazilian states participated.
The smuggling ring involved the capture of animals, some of them endangered species from as far away as the Amazon forest, Parrots, jaguars, boa-constrictor snakes, forest deers, and monkeys were among those traded.
"Usually the animals sold were those that are most rare and in danger of extinction, like species of macaws and parrots," said Alexandre Saraiva, head of the police anti-wildlife smuggling unit in Rio.
Most wild animals captured for sale die during transit in inhumane conditions, but the trade remains profitable because of the high prices commanded in rich countries.
An egg of a coveted Blue Macaw would sell for 3,000 euros ($3,800) in Europe, Saraiva said. "In some cases it is more lucrative than drug trafficking," he said.
Brazil’s National Network Against Wild Animal Trade (Renctas) estimated in 2001 that 38 million wild animals were poached every year and that only about a third survived long enough to be sold.
The global trade in poached animals and their hides, tusks and bones is worth $10 billion to $20 billion a year, ranking third after illegal arms and drug trafficking, the group said.
Paulo Moutinho, coordinator of the Amazon Research Institute in Brasilia, said police crackdowns were important but would not succeed without more government investment in sustainable industries in poor regions like the Amazon.
"Part of the problem is that most of the people who are trading animals, trading biodiversity, don’t have any kind of alternative," he said.
Police and environmentalists have long complained that insufficient resources and lax laws made it difficult to stamp out the trade.
De Luna said many of those arrested for animal trafficking typically face a fine. But he added that the arrests Wednesday were made under laws targeting the formation of criminal gangs, making convictions and prison sentences more likely. (Writing by Stuart Grudgings; editing by Todd Benson and Paul Simao)