Wildlife: Would you stuff this into your suitcase?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996

Wildlife: Would you stuff this into your suitcase?

Renowned bird-lover Tony Silva's ugly fall from grace
By Gretchen Reynolds

"Nature has certain rules you don't violate," Tony Silva told a reporter in 1985. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, intense, and at 25 already a celebrity in aviculture circles, Silva was talking about the most effective and humane ways to breed rare parrots in captivity. Isolate the sex-shy, he explained. Encourage the more randy birds with raw meat. And never hurt a bird.

Only in retrospect do his remarks seem strange. According to the U.S. Justice Department, by the time the above interview took place, Silva was one of the world's most accomplished and ruthless wildlife smugglers, overseeing a multimillion-dollar ring that plucked rare hyacinth macaws and other parrots from the Brazilian rainforest, transported them to America, and sold them to pet stores and breeders for as much as $10,000 apiece. Over the next nine years, Silva--renowned author, vehement critic of wildlife smuggling, and guru to thousands of bird owners worldwide--apparently ran a thriving business while countless birds died in transit. Now 35, he pleaded guilty in January to one count of wildlife smuggling and one count of income-tax evasion, for which he could face up to eight years in prison and $500,000 in fines. (As part of a plea bargain, the government dropped 16 other smuggling counts.) At press time, sentencing was scheduled for late April.

How could a bird lover do such a thing? Only Silva can answer that, and he's not speaking to the press as he awaits sentencing, but prosecutors say that within a few years of starting to breed birds legally, the Cuban-born immigrant began leading a secret life. He started small, buying "hot" birds to supplement his stable of macaws and housing them in his suburban Chicago basement. Later, he masterminded an international smuggling operation, selling birds for profit. The crime of bird smuggling may not sound particularly ruthless until you consider how the animals are sneaked across borders. Evidence shows that after birds were snatched from trees, they were sometimes stuffed into plastic pipe or crammed into the false bottoms of suitcases.

Silva's conviction marks the end of a three-year, multinational investigation into the illegal animal trade, a $5-billion-a-year business that ranks second among the world's most profitable black markets, behind drugs but ahead of illegal arms. While Silva's is the most high-profile case, the dragnet, which included New Zealand and Australian wildlife agents and was dubbed Operation Renegade, convicted 35 other wildlife smugglers and confiscated at least 500 birds and eggs.

But despite the apparent success, some in the bird-fancying community are none too optimistic about the future. "We hope that these arrests will send a clear message," says Michael Reynolds, founder of World Parrot Trust, a Britain-based organization. "But let's be realistic: There are so few agents, and the profits are still so large." Reynolds adds, "But then, we've never seen someone as famous as Tony Silva get sent to the penitentiary before."

Last fall, in an interview in his modest home, its basement stripped of the cages that once held hundreds of parrots, Silva discussed his plans for life after jail, which center on an ecotourism venture in the Bahamas, to be called Harmony Park. It will be an artificial rainforest, he says, with hundreds of species of rare, endangered birds. Pulling out professionally rendered plans, Silva excitedly pointed to a splotch of ink denoting the park's hyacinth macaw habitat. "See this?" he said. "How can anyone doubt that I love and want to conserve birds?"

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