SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Four police officers in Trinidad allegedly hijacked a smuggling boat at gunpoint and stole 1,000 endangered birds and monkeys along with 400 pounds of wild animal meat, authorities said Tuesday.
The boat had sailed from Venezuela carrying more than 500 bull finches, 300 picoplat songbirds and an assortment of monkeys — all crammed into tiny cages piled up on the craft, officials said. The illicit load was estimated to be worth about $500,000.
Trinidad officials got a tip about Saturday's alleged hijacking and investigators found birds and monkeys in people's homes, in pet shops and even along roads in Port-of-Spain, the capital, senior game warden Samsundar Ramdeen said.
"It's amazing. It was a lot," he said.
Officials said the four officers face several charges including possession of protected animals without a permit. They said the birds and monkeys are protected species under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, which requires licenses for importing and exporting.
Veterinarians at Trinidad's main zoo are caring for the recovered creatures, whose future remains uncertain.
About 10 percent cannot be released into the wild because they are not native to Trinidad, Ramdeen said. But Emperor Valley Zoo can handle only so many animals, and dozens of parrots, monkeys and macaws might have to be killed if homes are not found, he said.
"The last thing you want to do is put animals to sleep," said Gupte Lutchmedial, president of the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago. "It's not their fault that they're here."
Reports of animal smuggling in the Caribbean have increased in recent years, said Kelvin Alie, who monitors wildlife trade for the U.S.-based nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"A lot of it has to do with the demand for parrots and macaws and these sort of charismatic birds," he said. "You are looking at an area where there are certain species of animals that are found nowhere else on Earth."
In the last year, Trinidad officials have broken up several large rings that smuggled endangered species mostly from Suriname and Guyana, Ramdeen said.
"It is a huge problem," he said. "It tells us something about how much we're not intercepting."