Largest wildlife market in Peruvian Amazon is back in business

At booths lining the walkways, sloth paws are stored in jars next to dried herbs, and yellow-footed turtle meat lies alongside chicken breasts. A leopard skin drapes above a stall, like a rug drying on a laundry rack. Handicrafts sit atop tables in rows, as do bottles of pink dolphin genitalia. Parakeets for sale as pets hop in small cages. Fish, sliced open but still alive, writhe in buckets.

This is the scene in October 2019 at Belén Market, a sprawling outdoor bazaar in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon where more than 200 species of wild animals—living and dead—were illegally for sale.

Two months later, on the other side of the world, a novel coronavirus broke out in China

In January 2020, as COVID-19 was becoming a global pandemic, China banned the farming, sale, and consumption of wild animals and their parts. The Wuhan market was boarded up. Three months after that, the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the United Nations Environment Programme issued guidance calling for, among other regulations, the shutdown of marketplaces selling live, wild-caught mammals.

Yet despite the urgings from international institutions, it’s unclear whether this new virus has slowed the buying and selling of wild animals or spurred those who engage in the trade to change their practices. Belén Market presents a case study in just how stubbornly the illicit wildlife economy can persist.

The 16-acre market is in Iquitos, on a tributary of the Amazon—the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon and the largest in the world that can’t be reached by land.

That month, the city government shut down Belén Market, bulldozing the nearly 2,500 stalls. The closure coincided with a plan, five years in the works, to modernize the market, with financial backing from the United Nations Development Programme. The overhaul was intended to promote economic development and better living conditions in a long-marginalized part of the country. 

This summer, following months of construction, the market reopened. But an eight-week investigation in August and September by World Animal Protection, an international animal welfare nonprofit, revealed that the illegal selling of wild animals and their parts has resumed in much of the market.

The investigators found sliced-open caimans lying in busy walkways, live parrots in cardboard boxes, and wild deer meat for sale next to fruits and vegetables.

Hunting wild animals for subsistence, common in Indigenous Amazonian communities, is legal in Peru, but selling those animals in markets is not. Yet hunters in river communities often take animals or their parts to vendors at Belén. Wild animal meat—such as caiman, paca (a large rodent), and collared peccary, a pig-like mammal—is widely available there. Live animals also are sold for pets or for food. People buy live yellow-footed turtles, for example, and slaughter them later. Animal parts—jaguar teeth, sloth claws, pink dolphin genitalia—are sold for use in traditional medicine, domestically and internationally, or as luxury souvenirs.