FIU director saves over two dozen poached hatchlings from wildlife trafficking scheme

The Hatchlings while in their stay in FIU's Tropical Conservation Institute. Courtesy of FIU News

Ana Cedeno | Staff Writer 

Paul Reillo was ready to start his weekend when he received a call from the US Fish and Wildlife Services on midnight, March 23.

Reillo was told that a bag of 29 eggs was confiscated at Miami International Airport after Customs and Border Patrol heard chirping from the bags. 

“Initially, the fish and wildlife service didn’t know what they were, but they suspected they were parrots,” said Reillo, who is the director of FIU’s Tropical Conservation Institute.

The chirping that had alerted authorities also meant the eggs had started hatching.

“Bear in mind this happened at midnight on a Friday night, so I’m trying to advise them on what it’s likely these parrots are, and also to advise on how to keep them alive,” he said. 

Yet, Reillo would quickly realize wildlife services had no provision for caring for these types of animals, so the next day he drove to the airport to set up a makeshift incubator room within the quarantined room housing the eggs.

“I really didn’t think we were gonna have much success,” he said. “Most of the time, smuggled wildlife either dies in transit or the whole episode ends in tragedy.”

According to Reillo Miami is a hub for trafficking wildlife thanks to its position as a major transportation hub as well as its proximity to the tropics.

“It’s a very important thing for the community to know; it happens all the time,” said Reillo.

In this case, the smugglers knew exactly what they were doing: the birds had hatch times that were close together, meaning this wasn’t an amateur job.

“These birds came from many different clutches, many different sources but the total elapsing time for the first chick to the last was just ten days,” said Reillo. “Which means that whoever was smuggling these eggs knew exactly where they were in the incubation cycle: they were building orders for a client.”

The day after that FWS would surrender the birds and the equipment to him, making his clinic officially responsible for the parrots.

“For 45 days we were under federal lockdown to quarantine, incubate, hatch and rear these birds,” he said. “It’s an exhausting and exacting science, but it’s one of the things we’ve done for over 30 years.”

Even with decades of experience, Reillo would still admit the enormous challenge his team faced.

“But it was not something that was scheduled, it was a very tall order…for the next ten weeks we’re hand-feeding these babies from the time they hatch all the way through.”

In addition to raising them, Reillo and his clinic also had to identify the birds. For this, they enlisted the help of FIU’s genomics lab, taking DNA samples from the eggshells as means of identification.

The birds would turn out to be yellow-naped Amazons and red-lored Amazons, the former being a critically endangered species. Reillo believes the birds most likely originated in Honduras.

This information would soon play a role in aiding the prosecution of the smuggler, Szu Ta Wu.

“My role initially was for scientific guidance on this case,” he said. “But by the time we were finished, I was also helping with the prosecution with law enforcement,” he said.

Wu has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. He could be facing up to twenty years in prison.

“In order to make that case we had to have iron-clad genetics, we had to establish the likely country of origin and we also established the street value of the animals.” 

The birds would eventually be moved to SoCal Parrots, a nonprofit specializing in rehabilitating parrots. Reillo would explain his clinic did not have the space to care for these animals up to maturity.

“We were maxed out,” he said. 

Although he couldn’t disclose much due to the ongoing case, Reillo stated that the birds are doing well, and once reaching maturity will be returned to their original habitat.

Though ecstatic that the birds survive, Reillo hopes this event will help shine a light on the sophistication of modern-day animal trafficking. 

“This trafficking pipeline is what a lot of people don’t appreciate,” he said. “It’s very sophisticated, it’s very well financed…it’s all based in greed. It’s all about money.” 

He added that it’s low risk and high reward, as moving eggs is so much easier than moving birds and that the death of the birds en route is actually factored in by smugglers.

For Reillo, these trafficking efforts grimly portray the degradation wildlife faces, fueled by their demand as pets. 

 “We’re talking about thousands of thousands of birds entering the pet trade every year. Now, how can that be? How can you sustain that kind of consumption year after year after year?”

“Well, the answer is very simple, and that is that the vast majority of the birds sold as pets actually die,” he said. 

Reillo points to the longevity of these species for evidence, with the yellow-naped Amazon having a lifespan of 60 to 80 years in captivity.

“That accounts for how the market can be so strong, and every year more and more birds enter the market,” Reillo said. “If that were not true, the country would be overrun with parrots, and we know that that’s not happening.”

Reillo said that he hopes that the birds and the media attention can be used to make people aware of just how devastating wildlife trafficking is to conservation.

“We can use that. We can use them as ambassadors to really illuminate the seriousness of wildlife trafficking, and to disrupt it, to find ways to deter trafficking,” he said. 

“So the happy story here is that these 24 little birds, which would have certainly died, are now given a second chance on life, and they’re living their best lives so far.”

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