Seventy percent of federally endangered golden-winged warblers winter in areas of increased suitability for cocaine trafficking.

Cocaine Trafficking Threatens Critical Bird Habitats

In addition to its human consequences, cocaine trafficking harms the environment and threatens habitats important to dozens of species of migratory birds, according to a new study co-authored by Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, an associate professor at The University of Alabama.

Two-thirds of the areas that are most important to forest birds — including 67 species of migratory birds that overwinter in Central America — are at increased risk of destruction from cocaine trafficking activities, according to the study, “Intersection of Narco-Trafficking, Enforcement and Bird Conservation in the Americas,” published June 12 in Nature Sustainability.

An Unexpected Connection

A professor in a button-down shirt poses for a photo in an archival room.
Nicholas Magliocca

“U.S. drug policy in Central America focuses on the supply side of the equation and law enforcement pressure plays a significant role in the movement of trafficking routes and locations of narco-deforestation,” Magliocca said. “After 40 years that approach has not worked. In fact, cocaine trafficking has only expanded and become a worldwide network. It used to be that cocaine was just passing through Central America, but now it’s become a hub of global transshipment.”

In the study, scientists from four universities, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, combined measures of various landscape characteristics and concentrations of migratory birds in Central America to highlight the unexpected connection between a pervasive social problem and biodiversity.

More than half of the global population of one in five migratory species inhabit areas that became more attractive to trafficking following peak law enforcement pressure, measured as the volume of cocaine seized. For example, 90% of the world’s population of federally endangered golden-cheeked warblers and 70% of golden-winged warblers and Philadelphia vireos winter in those vulnerable landscapes.

The largest remaining forests in Central America — known as the Five Great Forests and inhabited primarily by Indigenous people — are seeing growing levels of cocaine trafficking.

“When drug traffickers are pushed into remote forested areas, they clear land to create landing strips, roads and cattle pastures,” said lead author Amanda Rodewald, senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Those activities — and the counterdrug strategies that contribute to them — can deforest landscapes and threaten species.”

This study builds upon previous ethnographic and modeling work done by Magliocca and a core group of researchers looking at land-use conditions and decisions made by the traffickers themselves based on perceived risk and profit.

Map showing important bird habitat in central America and where it intersects with land at risk for trafficking activities.
Overlap between Important Bird Landscapes for 67 migratory forest birds and areas that have become more suitable for narco-trafficking following peak interdiction.
Credit: Rodewald et al. 2024. Nature Sustainability.

The Full Cost of Narco-Trafficking

“This research gives an even fuller accounting of the harms caused by drug trafficking and the way we currently go about fighting it,” Magliocca said. “The real, full cost of U.S. drug policy is much larger than the current accounting when one considers the impacts of the unintended consequences. You have to do more than reactively chase after the drug traffickers who have nearly unlimited money and power in the region. No question it’s a complex, fluid and dangerous situation.”

“Incorporating measures that build capacity in local communities and governments to monitor and protect their forests, grow alternate forms of income, and resolve unclear land tenure would go a long way,” Rodewald said. “Our study is a reminder that we can’t address social problems in a vacuum because they can have unintended environmental consequences that undermine conservation.”

This research was conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, University of Alabama, Ohio State University, Northern Arizona University, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with funding from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University and NASA.


Amanda D. Rodewald, Anna Lello-Smith, Nicholas R. Magliocca, Kendra McSweeney, Matt Strimas-Mackey, Steven E. Sesnie, Erik A. Nielsen. Intersection of narco-trafficking, enforcement, and bird conservation in the Americas. Nature Sustainability, June 2024.

DOI: 10.1038/s41893-024-01365-z