efe-epaBy Yolanda Salazar La Paz

China continues to be the leading destination for illegally smuggled body parts of the South American jaguar, that region's most emblematic feline and a species in danger of extinction.

Criminal gangs especially covet jaguars for their fangs, skins, claws and even their testicles, Sarah Stoner, senior investigations manager at the Wildlife Justice Commission, a Netherlands-based foundation, told EFE.

Stoner is in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for an international gathering that is being organized by that Andean nation's Environment and Water Ministry and aimed at tackling the illicit trade in jaguar parts.

She said those parts are highly prized in China due to beliefs that pendants with a jaguar fang enhance one's wealth and power and that jaguar testicles bolster men's sexual potency.

Stoner added that the commission is concerned that jaguars are becoming a substitute for tigers, which are now harder to find in the wild.

The investigator said that at least 90 percent of the global jaguar population lives in the Amazon rainforest, with Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay believed to be home to an estimated 5,000 of these big cats.

Stoner said her organization is committed to sharing information with policy makers at the national and international levels so they have a more precise sense of the dynamics of the illegal trade and can more effectively combat this scourge.

The WJC is a non-profit organization that operates globally with a mission to disrupt and help dismantle organized transnational criminal networks trading in wildlife, timber and fish, seeking to achieve these aims by conducting intelligence analysis and undercover investigations.

Stoner said that illegal trafficking routes in Latin America are still not completely understood but that criminal organizations are known to use the mail service to send jaguar parts.

The jaguar is a highly protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an inter-government agreement whose aim is to ensure that the cross-border trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

That feline also has been included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list as a "near-threatened" species.

During the gathering in Bolivia, an event attended by more than a dozen national and international experts, the jaguar was declared to be an "emblem and symbol of the strength and courage of the Latin American people to undertake the necessary actions to protect and defend Mother Earth," Bolivian Deputy Environment Minister Cynthia Silva said.

From 2014 to the present in Bolivia, more than 600 jaguar fangs have been seized, mainly from Chinese nationals, and some 30 poaching cases involving that big cat have been investigated, according to wildlife experts.

The WJC says it has worked with law enforcement agencies in Asia and Africa on 24 wildlife crime investigations and helped secure the arrests of 93 wildlife traffickers, "focusing on high level criminals, those driving the trade." EFE-EPA