Editor's note: Juliana Machado Ferreira is one of National Geographic's 2014 Emerging Explorers, a designation that honors tomorrow's visionaries—those making discoveries, making a difference, and inspiring people to care about the planet.
It doesn't get a lot of media attention, but every year, poachers take a whopping 38 million animals from the wilds of Brazil to meet the global demand for illegal wildlife. Most are birds, destined to become caged pets for owners in Rio de Janeiro or Sydney or Madrid or New York.
Brazil's strong demand for exotic pets, its weak laws around the wildlife trade, and its light penalties for violators allow many traffickers to operate with impunity, feeding the country's $2 billion industry.
Juliana Machado Ferreira is trying to change that with a simple tool: information.
The São Paulo-based wildlife conservationist says that in Brazil and elsewhere, keeping wild songbirds, parrots, and macaws as pets is a deeply ingrained cultural norm.
"Most people have no idea that buying a parrot can have a devastating impact on nature, and support a whole system of illegal activities," she says. "That's why educating consumers is crucial. Often, just giving them facts changes minds and behavior."
That's the aim of Freeland Brasil, a group Machado Ferreira founded to combat wildlife trafficking. While she works with law enforcement on the front lines of what she hopes will become a war against trafficking, her organization raises awareness of the problem, using films, lectures, and educational programs for high schoolers and university students.
Smuggled birds are mistreated and injured during transport, the group tells the public, and most of them are eventually poorly cared for as pets. Birds are fed the wrong food, placed in too-small cages, and get too little or too much sun.
Still, Machado Ferreira's work aims higher than the lives of individual animals.
"I care about the individual birds I rescue," she says. "But my real focus is on survival of whole species.
"Brazil's wildlife is plundered in such huge numbers every day, severe imbalances are occurring within ecosystems," she continues. "Extinctions of entire local populations can happen, and that affects many other prey and predator species up and down the food chain."
Indeed, Brazil's wildlife trade is altering local ecosystems, causing problems like inbreeding, stymied seed dispersal, and inadequate pollination on farms.
Linking Arms With Police
Much of Machado Ferreira's work is aimed at developing scientific techniques for law enforcement to more effectively battle traffickers.
With a Ph.D. in genetics, she has developed species-specific molecular markers that can help identify the origins of birds that have been seized by police, uncover animals that criminals say were legally bred, and make sure rehabilitated birds are returned to the right spot.
"Even within the same species, distinct groups with unique genetic differences can evolve as they adapt to particular environments," she says. "So if a scarlet macaw that was stolen from a forest in the northeast is returned to a forest in the northwest, it could mate and jeopardize the long-term health and viability of that local population."
Machado Ferreira has a decade-long research collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services National Forensics Laboratory, but she also spends a lot of time outside the lab.
With Freeland Brasil, a partner of Thailand's Freeland Foundation—which works to end wildlife trafficking and human slavery around the world—Machado Ferreira leads police trainings to teach simple techniques that reduce the high death rate of animals seized from traffickers.
She's writing a guidebook for police officers about those techniques and is partnering with officials in São Paulo to develop protocols for how to treat and where to send seized animals.
Machado Ferreira is active at the national level, too, sharing her database of wildlife trafficking reports and seizures with Brazil's federal police, to help them step up enforcement.
With help from the animal welfare group SOS Fauna, she sometimes accompanies law enforcement in the field, joining police raids to identify and count animals and providing triage care to keep birds alive. Much of the work revolves around street markets.
"Traffickers don't want to risk bringing all their merchandise to a fair, so police intelligence information [has] also led us to homes near the markets where illegal cargo was held," she says. "We would stake out surveillance in front of those houses and then join the raid to seize the animals."
Machado Ferreira is also active in the political arena, lobbying Brazilian legislators to strengthen anti-trafficking laws, increase penalties, and launch a national trafficking task force. But she acknowledges that change won't come easy: "The lobby which supports the wild pet trade is very strong, powerful, and well-financed."
Her ultimately goal: to develop a cross-border network of law enforcement agencies coordinating efforts to fight wildlife trafficking across South America.
"I would like to see a large, overarching law enforcement network created here, much like the successful ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network," she says. "We need to act now—or we'll have nothing left to protect."