Why you should care

Because this badass biologist believes genetics is as crucial to fighting wildlife trafficking as high-speed chases and street-market raids.

Juliana Machado Ferreira stalks her prey through a São Paulo street market. Her green eyes are keen, her movements catlike, her posse a group of undercover police officers.

The men they’ve been tracking suddenly break into a run. Machado Ferreira lunges. She pounces on one of the men, sending him crashing. An officer handcuffs the other. Unzipped, the bags reveal wooden crates crammed with birds of every color — brilliant turquoise, dewy green, jet black — and cardboard boxes crawling with turtles and lizards.

When you see [seized] animals and look in their eyes, you cannot not do anything.

— Juliana Machado Ferreira

Machado Ferreira goes all out, CSI-like, to fight wildlife trafficking. Officially, she runs Freeland Brasil, an anti-trafficking advocacy organization, but she’s also teamed up with law enforcement on stakeouts and raids of houses suspected to hold exotic birds. She works with lawmakers to put some real bite in anti-trafficking laws. And to pinpoint where to release rescued birds, she has a more high-tech scheme up her sleeve: using genetic markers to identify their geographic origin — where they’re best adapted to live — so they can thrive in the wild.

“When you see [seized] animals and look in their eyes, you cannot not do anything,” says Machado Ferreira. It’s not just compassion, she says: Poaching can disrupt the delicate balance that all species — including humans — need to thrive. “Our water sources and agriculture depend on a healthy ecosystem,” she says.

She’s up against a lot. The illegal wildlife trade is a booming business estimated to generate $20 billion a year, often tied to terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, and increasingly lucrative for smugglers all over. Last year, more than 30,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa for their ivory; traffickers poach 38 million animals every year in Brazil alone.

Machado Ferreira focuses on birds, which traffickers smuggle in anything available: medicine tubes, hair curlers, hubcaps. Lax laws make it next to impossible to punish traffickers. Environmental groups suggest killing rescued, non-threatened birds. And then there are cultural norms: Keeping parrots and other local fauna is an old tradition in Brazil, where some locals refer to their pets as xerimbabos: “something beloved.”

Machado Ferreira speaks via Skype from her São Paulo home, where she lives with her husband and their 6-month-old daughter. Chestnut-haired, with eyes the color of palm leaves, the 34-year-old grew up in a suburb of São Paulo, where she often played barefoot with her pet hens, dogs and cats. “I always loved animals,” she says. She turned vegetarian six years ago.

She brandished her fieldwork machete, responding coolly, ‘The little girl has company.’

As an undergraduate at the University of São Paulo, she dreamed of working in the field, like Jacques Cousteau or Jane Goodall. Genetics did not appeal. But her senior year, a friend encouraged her to check out the university’s Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology and Vertebrate Conservation. Researchers there use DNA sequencing for conservation efforts — to ensure the genetic diversity that species need to survive, for example.

“I fell in love with the work,” she said. “I saw that genetics could be used toward conservation, not just an end in itself.” She began her Ph.D. research at the lab soon afterward.

“Birds make up the very, very vast majority of illegal wildlife trade in Brazil,” Machado Ferreira says. Birds accounted for 24 of the 30 species most commonly confiscated by the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency from 2005 to 2009. They include the green-winged saltator and saffron finch — species with vibrant plumage and/or melodic songs.

Around the same time, she met Marcelo Rocha, president of the anti-trafficking organization SOS Fauna. Rocha opened her eyes to the illegal pet trade with video footage of SOS Fauna workers confiscating thousands of exotic birds. “I knew if I didn’t do anything, I’d feel restless,” Machado Ferreira recalls.

Close up of hands holding bird

Ferreira takes a blood sample from an ultramarine grosbeak.

Source Erica Pacifico

So she volunteered with SOS Fauna, seizing trucks after high-speed chases, raiding homes, confiscating birds and interrogating traffickers. Sometimes local residents would snicker, “Look at the little girl helping the police,” at which point the 5-foot-8, broad-shouldered former swimmer brandished her fieldwork machete, responding coolly, “The little girl has company.”

Rocha describes Machado Ferreira as “very passionate … and extremely stubborn. She feels she must be involved and go beyond what is expected.” During one raid aimed to confiscate illegal birds, she came upon a locked door. “Eyes sparkling,” she gave the door a swift, hard kick, says Rocha. “To this day, we joke that she is a ‘foot on the door’ type of person.”

Species adapt to their environments in a process known as natural selection. For example, birds in cooler habitats have a better chance of surviving and passing on their traits if they have a thick, insulating layer of down.

Rescue equals success, right? Not quite. Many birds go to rehabilitation centers to learn survival skills before their release. Non-threatened species are a different story. The Brazilian Ornithological Society recommends euthanizing them because, it says, scientists don’t know where to release them. Setting them free in the wrong habitat gives them a poor chance of survival.

It’s a perverse catch-22 for Machado Ferreira: Let the birds be trafficked or let them be euthanized. That policy would kill 26,000 birds a year in São Paulo alone, she says. Instead, she argues that it’s enough to ensure that released birds are healthy and sociable, and that they’re released to the right place. That last one is trickier than it might sound, as birds of the same species might express different traits depending on their environment. Birds that live in cool climates might have a thicker layer of insulating down than those that live in hot, humid habitats, for example.

Which is why Machado Ferreira has identified genetic markers for four oft-trafficked species that could trace rescued birds to the population where they most likely originated. The markers aren’t used yet, but “they will be used in the near future,” she says. She is looking to establish markers for 10 more species; she also wants to develop a paternity test that would detect whether breeders are legally breeding birds in captivity or poaching them.

She can get overwhelmed. “The population is against you, and the legislation doesn’t help you,” she says. In a field that measures success by number of papers published, researchers tell her she belongs behind a lab bench, not wasting her time raiding markets and visiting schools.

But she grits her teeth, stubborn as usual. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t do a thing. I think about biodiversity and the animals. I try to do what’s within my reach.”

Even within distance of a swift kick.

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