Drug traffickers in Ecuador are constructing private, illegal zoos as a symbol of status, following the example set by Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar. This disturbing trend was brought to light when police discovered two jaguars confined in a cage on a ranch owned by Wilder Sanchez Farfan, also known as “Gato” (The Cat), a suspected drug lord associated with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation cartel and wanted in the United States. Alongside the jaguars, authorities found parrots, parakeets, and other exotic birds believed to have been imported from China and South Korea.
The rise of underground drug operations in Ecuador in recent years has coincided with the emergence of this phenomenon. Darwin Robles, head of the police’s Environmental Protection Unit (UPMA), stated that where there is drug trafficking, wildlife trafficking is likely to follow. The purpose behind these illegal zoos is to showcase the drug lords’ power, wealth, and economic capacity.
Ecuador, known for its rich biodiversity, has become a hub for drug trafficking, sandwiched between major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru. As a result, the country has experienced a surge in violent crime. In 2022, the police seized over 6,800 wild animals, and in 2021, nearly 6,000, highlighting the extent of wildlife trafficking in Ecuador.
The jaguars and birds found on Farfan’s property were transferred to rehabilitation centers for medical care and attention. However, due to the trauma they have endured, many animals cannot be returned to their natural habitats. Police have also discovered turtles, snakes, furs, and animal heads on properties belonging to other drug kingpins.
Owning exotic animals has become a status symbol within organized crime networks, similar to possessing expansive properties, luxury cars, artwork, or jewelry. Wildlife trafficking in Ecuador carries a maximum prison sentence of three years, which is considerably less than in neighboring countries.
The negative environmental impact of drug lords’ illegal zoos is a growing concern. After Escobar’s death in 1993, his private collection of animals was placed in zoos, but a herd of hippos was left unattended, leading to their uncontrolled reproduction and posing a significant challenge for environmental authorities in Colombia. There are fears that Ecuador’s drug lords may leave a similar environmental footprint.
Animals rescued from captivity often bear signs of maltreatment and require treatment and rehabilitation. However, only a fraction of these animals can recover sufficiently to be released back into the wild. Many do not survive, while others spend the rest of their lives in shelters, unable to adapt to their natural habitats.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) emphasized that traffickers fail to comprehend the harm they cause. Owning a pet monkey, for instance, means that a hunter killed its family. The Jardin Alado Ilalo in Quito is one of the shelters that houses animals unable to be reintroduced to the wild.
In 2022, Ecuadorian police seized 6,817 illegally-held wild animals, and in 2021, the number reached 5,951, underscoring the urgent need to address wildlife trafficking in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries.