Big money and endangered species: from Guyana to Paris, the traffic in songbirds in the sights

With your head in the clouds, being woken up by the most famous songbird in the world, it must be an experience that you won’t forget. This is what happened to the passengers on the Cayenne-Orly flight three weeks ago. In the middle of the trip, four specimens of the Sporophile curio, better known under the name of picolette, manage to escape the luggage in which a couple had hidden them.

After a few dreamlike seconds during which the birds fly in the cabin, the return to earth is less poetic. Warned by the captain, customs officers board the plane as soon as it lands. The couple are auditioned. Released, he is now the target of an investigation entrusted to the French Biodiversity Office (OFB) for trafficking in wild animals. On the black market, in metropolitan France, a picolette that sings well sells for nearly a thousand euros.

“We had never seen that, we are still surprised at the customs department. It’s so rare that the fate of these four birds has been the subject of much discussion. With Paris Aéroports, the Population Protection Department and the airline in particular, we have succeeded in bringing them back to Guyana. A captain took them with him shortly after. We’ve had news since. The picolettes, whose detention is strictly regulated and transport completely prohibited, have been released into the wild. “

Four police officers mandated to investigate

The investigation to know if this seizure is part of a traffic or if we are dealing with simple enthusiasts is only just beginning. The file was placed on the pile of business that the new Paris-Petite Couronne (PPC) service of the OFB must manage.

For more than a year, the four police officers have been seized with each judicial investigation following the discovery of a wild animal. The share of birds would represent a third of their activity. “In the southwest of France, it is to make skewers”, grimaces Yves Verilhac, general manager of the League for the protection of birds (LPO). A long and difficult fight. “Two weeks ago, we won our last case against the ortolans in cassation,” he emphasizes. It took five years to come to terms with this practice (this protected species is tasted for its delicate flesh, editor’s note). »

A melodious song prized by buyers

In the Paris region, it is above all for their melodious song that protected species are hunted down. “Birds, either we eat them, or we listen to them,” notes the specialist bitterly.

On the other hand, it is impossible to quantify the business of the songbird. Seizures are almost always incidental. “When, for example, colleagues search a dealer and find that he is also trafficking birds”, contextualizes a police officer.

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Since the creation of the PPC service at the OFB at the biodiversity office, the Paris prosecutor’s office has had to manage more and more cases. “We went from one or two cases per year to one or two every two weeks”, assesses suspiciously a judicial source. In France, “undermining the conservation of non-domestic animal species” is punishable, since a 2016 law, by a fine of 150,000 euros and three years’ imprisonment.

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Is the traffic in songbirds on the rise? “It is possible but in reality we do not know, recognizes an investigator. What is certain is that we are much more interested in it than before. Not just because it’s about protecting species. “The detention of wild animals is an additional and little-known lever to prosecute a trafficker,” smiles the same source.

Guyana, land of export

Three years ago, the OFB already sensitized its teams on the illegal transport of Guyana to the metropolis “many picolettes”. Information obtained by word of mouth, without being based on a seizure before that of three weeks ago, by chance, in the Cayenne-Orly flight. “Here, we already have a lot to do with the cocaine exported to mainland France, recognizes an investigator on the spot. The other concern is that the possession of picolettes is very common, as we have seen in the series Guyana. Many people own them, sometimes even in their workplace. A tradition that comes in particular from Brazil. “

Every year, a picolette singing competition is even organized. With financial stakes that one does not suspect for the owners. “Some winners can buy a nice house,” says the same source. “If its detention is authorized, its trade, like all those of birds from the natural environment, is strictly prohibited by the ministerial decree of 2015”, underlines Fanny Petitjean, of the biodiversity office of Guyana.

At the beginning of February, after months of investigation, the agents of this service as well as the gendarmerie arrested four individuals who had been selling songbirds for several years in the Saint-Laurent du Maroni market. Each market day, ten picolettes were sold between 40 euros and 400 euros each. The birds were bought in different places in western Guyana and in Suriname. Of the 37 songbirds, 34 could have been released directly into the natural environment. Despite this kind of one-off operation, it is also impossible to estimate the evolution of the traffic of songbirds.

Another targeted species, the goldfinch, “the bird at ten euros per gram”

In metropolitan France, there is no tradition of the picolette. In contrast, another songbird turns heads. It is the elegant goldfinch. It is recognizable by its red-white-black colors on the head with a broad yellow wing band on the back and a black tail. But it is not for its plumage that the traffickers nickname it “the bird at ten euros per gram”.

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This sparrow could imitate the song of any congener. He would be able to sublimate it. Goldfinch enthusiasts even make him listen to melodies that the songbird reproduces to perfection. It is even credited with other powers. In northern France, he was taken to mines to prevent firedamp blasts. It is in this region and even further north in Belgium that goldfinch trafficking is most intense.

The European goldfinch is the most hunted songbird in France.  DR
The European goldfinch is the most hunted songbird in France. DR

Ile-de-France is not to be outdone. Regularly, in Essonne or Yvelines for example, the police surprise poachers who trap songbirds by applying glue to a stick in the middle of the forest. The elegant goldfinch sells for 250 to 350 euros.

“Orders are placed on the Internet and the birds are collected,” analyzes the Central Office for the Fight against Environmental and Public Health Attacks. The particularity of these files: we are in a small environment which is also completely global because in a few clicks you can place an order. “For the picolette also, the sale is done more and more by the social networks, notes the office of biodiversity of Guyana.

Paris bird market blacklisted

But not only. Selling under the hood is also a reality. “Every Sunday, there are twenty street vendors on the sidelines of the bird market located on the Ile de la Cité in Paris,” said a specialist. The “note dealers”, as this breeder calls them, are placed on the outskirts of the weekly meeting. If a buyer shows up, we take a songbird out of the trunk of a car and make the transaction.

This Sunday, February 28, legal merchants – 13 are still authorized but there are only 3 or 4 who actually occupy a stand – are eager to fly in the feathers of the twenty or so protesters of the Paris Animaux association. Zoopolis. For more than an hour, the song “Open the bird cage” by Pierre Perret is broadcast on a sound system. “We want empty cages,” demand animal rights activists. And they know how to make themselves heard. The bird market has become undesirable and is on the way out even though no date has been set yet.

Place Lépine, Paris (IVe), Sunday February 28.  A demonstration of animal rights activists was held near the bird market.  LP / DC
Place Lépine, Paris (IVe), Sunday February 28. A demonstration of animal rights activists was held near the bird market. LP / DC

The quasi-philosophical argument on the place of animals in our society is not the only one invoked. “Many offenses were noted and sanctioned on the spot such as the sale of protected species, sales to dubious origins …” denounced Ariel Weil the mayor (PS) of Paris Center. Christophe Najdovski, the deputy mayor of Paris in charge of animal health, even declared that this market dating from 1860 and located really opposite the Prefecture of Police, had “become the epicenter of bird trafficking in Ile -of France “. According to him, “despite a certain number of actions carried out, this trafficking continues today”.

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An argument that makes the last merchants like Franck jump, “born in the bird market”. “We are the first to demand controls,” he fulses. And we are made to foot the bill. Where will people buy their birds? They will go to the big brands ”. What about the prohibited sale of protected birds? “We don’t sell any,” protests another merchant. Among the customers, less and less numerous according to the regulars, almost only enthusiasts.

Thirteen traders are still authorized to work on the bird market on the Île de la Cité in Paris.  Sunday's date will soon be gone.  LP / DC
Thirteen traders are still authorized to work on the bird market on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Sunday’s date will soon be gone. LP / DC

If the street sale of elegant goldfinches is a subject that annoys traders, Mahieddine, a retiree from Pantin (Seine-Saint-Denis) has tremolos in his voice when he mentions the songbird. “I spent my childhood in Algeria, rewinds this grandfather. There we all had a maknine (the Arabic name of the bird, Editor’s note). So from time to time, on Sundays, he goes to the bird market to share this golden age with other compatriots. “There are quite a few immigrants like me in the region. Listening to singing the maknine is a bit like a childhood. “

Does he have one at home? “Today, it is forbidden,” he eludes. Recently, this fascination with this songbird is evoked in the successful series “In therapy”. The writer Seham Boutata even collected many moving testimonies in his book “The melancholy of the maknine” (ed. Du Seuil). A passion which also has disastrous consequences.

The population in free fall

“In Algeria, the population of elegant goldfinches has been completely wiped out,” underlines Yves Verilhac, the director of the LPO, who regularly takes legal action in court. The enthusiasts ready to violate the law for a maknine now have recourse to the black market, notably through the Moroccan sector. In France, songbirds have not yet disappeared despite poaching and the use of pesticides. But the number of elegant goldfinches fell by 40% between 2010 and 2020. In Guyana too, picolettes are becoming increasingly rare, especially in peri-urban areas.

“What is surprising is that the more species disappear in the natural environment, the more they become fashionable on the Internet”, sighs at the Central Office for the fight against environmental and environmental damage. public health. The trafficking of wild animals is now the most important in the world, after that of drugs, weapons and prostitution.

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