As a blue flash appears in the evening sky, Antnio Maral dos Santos runs through his backyard yelling, "Here he comes!"
Mr. dos Santos is one of many peasants who are unofficial guardians of the blue Spix macaw, the last of its species to survive in the wild. "It gives me great satisfaction each day to know that he is still alive," says the Cura goatherder.
The Spix macaw is an example of what's resulted from illegal animal trafficking - an estimated $5 billion global business that Brazil's National Network Against Wild Animal Trafficking (Renctas) says trails only narcotics and weapons in illegal commerce.
"These traffickers are as well organized as the drug and arms mafias," says Renctas General Coordinator Dener Giovanini.
And Brazil is fighting back, with a vigor once reserved for battling the narcotics trade. In recent months, the country's authorities have persevered against cultural resistance and governmental neglect, campaigning to end animal trafficking by teaming up for the first time with the eight-month-old Renctas and IBAMA, Brazil's federal environmental protection agency.
And as with contraband and drugs, the US is the top customer in the illicit purchase of endangered fauna.
"The United States is undoubtedly the world's largest wildlife consuming country and center of commerce for the world's animals," says Traffic, monitoring arm of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
In Brazil, tropical birds such as the Spix macaw, along with reptiles and small monkeys, bring in as much as $700 million a year from collectors, pet shops, and scientific institutions, according to Renctas. And the rarer the species, the higher the price abroad. The Spix macaw, for example, sells for as much as $60,000, the organization says.
In February, a naturalized US citizen named Manoel Loureno Galo was arrested in So Paulo trying to smuggle to Pennsylvania 24 hyacinth macaw eggs estimated at $10,000 each.
"Since many species are near extinction, even politicians are listening to us now," says Elizabeth MacGregor, Brazil representative for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"And in every Brazilian city, there is some type of organization that protects animals," he adds.
Brazil, Colombia, and Peru are home to animal traffickers' favorite South American fauna while Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay typically serve as transit points for Asia, Europe, and the United States. In Colombia, the second-richest country after Brazil in biological diversity, poaching has driven several parrot species to the brink of extinction.
Deforestation, hunting, and poverty have also helped decimate regional wildlife, but the Biodiversitas Foundation says trafficking has played the principal role in endangering 218 Brazilian species. …