The metal doors of a cage open. Bird #811 launches into a giant aviary. The small finch spins in the air, lands on a willow branch, and cocks its head in curiosity. It seems surprised by its new freedom.
“That’s what it feels like to be free,” says veterinarian Juan Camilo Panqueba. He works at a quarantine center in Bogota, Colombia. He knows a bit of the little bird’s story. Three weeks ago, 32 finches were seized in a surprise raid of an illegal songbird contest. Leads from a previous raid helped authorities secretly penetrate the network that organized the event.
Sparring by way of song has been practiced for centuries throughout the Caribbean. Traditionally, the owner of the bird with the biggest pipes takes home a prize. The caveat? Wild birds are often used in the contests—and trapping wildlife without a license is a crime in Colombia. But for years, wildlife trafficking has been ignored by authorities in the country overrun by violence.
More people have begun noticing the great variety of Colombia’s wildlife. (The country has the second highest biodiversity in the world!) Violence in Colombia has also declined in recent years. With less violent crime, authorities can shift more resources toward tracking down animal traffickers. Last year, police there seized more than 34,600 illegally poached animals.
The rescued songbirds from the latest sting were abused by their captors. They were kept in tiny cages where they could not fly for exercise. Loud music played around the clock. Supposedly, the music would spur the stressed birds to sing. “For them, it was like torture,” says Panqueba.
The wildlife center that Panqueba works for has more than 1,000 rescued animals. They include macaws, sea turtles, and tiny titi monkeys—each rescued from traffickers. “Unfortunately, there’s not a single day [when] we don’t receive a wild animal,” says Panqueba.
The illegal wildlife trade is highly organized and dangerous. Trafficking is punishable with four to nine years in jail. So far this year, 3,500 people have been caught. For the most part though, traffickers continue to operate without consequence.
Some people think the crackdown and restrictions against capturing wildlife for sale seem too tight. Many of the bird species that are taken from the wild are not considered endangered. So why can’t these wild species be allowed to thrive in caring homes? After all, human interaction with wildlife can help us enjoy God-given biodiversity.