Jaguars, likewise, tend to be overshadowed by tigers, lions and leopards, Dr. Lemieux said, but “the international trade in jaguars is definitely something that’s changing.”
Ms. Morcatty and her colleagues analyzed the seizure data against a variety of variables to identify factors that are likely driving the trade. Predictably — and serving as a control — the more jaguars present in a country, the higher the amount of jaguar trafficking. Also not surprisingly, they found that corruption and poverty are significantly associated with the illegal trade.
The second most significant variable after corruption was the direction of private Chinese investment, which has increased tenfold in Central and South America over the last decade, mostly in energy, mining and infrastructure. “In essence, it seems that countries with new Chinese money rolling in are the ones where we see an increase in overseas jaguar trade,” Dr. Nijman said.
Chinese investment itself is not a negative thing, and in fact brings many benefits to Central and South America, said Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society who was not involved in the study. “But all efforts should be made to ensure that it is environmentally and socially sound.”
In addition to bringing new potential buyers of jaguar products into the country, development itself — especially if it entails cutting new roads into pristine areas or clearing forests — can facilitate poaching by putting wildlife and people in closer vicinity. A study published in March, for example, found that agricultural expansion in the Amazon led to increased jaguar poaching. When Chinese companies are linked to such development, it only increases the odds of poached animals entering trade.
“Chinese investment into deforestation accelerates trade — it’s connected,” Ms. Morcatty said.
The pattern may be like one observed on the African continent. In a report published last year, Alfan Rija, a conservation ecologist at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, found that East Africans often hunt to fulfill Chinese demand, and that the majority of the 45 species they reported hunting — from elephants and rhinos to sea horses to hyenas — are purchased solely or primarily by Chinese individuals.