China finally passed a law to ban illegal wildlife trade after COVID-19 spread from Wuhan wet markets, and the world is left fighting for one of the worst faced health catastrophes. But the wildlife trade is not really threatened with this ban. Here’s how: Of the 900 million pangolins trafficked in the last decade, almost 96,000 kgs of pangolin scales mostly of African species have been seized between 2017 and 2019 across Malaysia, Singapore and VietNam, representing 94% of the total quantity of scales confiscated in Southeast Asia during this period.
Stuns you? There is more. Over 6,000 Indian Star Tortoises originating from South Asia were seized in just 10 incidents in 2017 alone, with all of them heading to either Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore; 4,500 African Rhino Horns seized in 2016-17, Over 200 tonnes of African Elephant Ivory between 2008 and 2019 and 45,000 songbirds seized in Sumatra and Java in 2018-19.
A recent assessment report by TRAFFIC, Southeast Asia: At the heart of wildlife trade, shows just how persistent the problem has been. The analysis highlights the region’s major issues that continue to allow illegal trade to thrive including the existence of organised criminal networks moving wildlife contraband, poor conviction rates, inadequate laws, and poor regulation of markets and retail outlets. This globally connected trade feeds a demand for wild animals, parts and products for use as trophies and trinkets (or luxury goods), traditional medicine ingredients (including formal prescriptions and informal ‘health tonics’), and the multi-billion-dollar live animal trade.
The authors of the report have also studied that despite years of evidence stacked against the open markets and outlets that unlawfully sell wildlife products across the region, these outlets continue to operate blatantly with impunity in several locations across Southeast Asia, under various degrees of regulation and law enforcement.
Some of these markets increasingly cater for specific clientele—for example, in Lao PDR and Myanmar, some outlets are operated by Chinese nationals with transactions conducted in Chinese Yuan and catering predominantly to Chinese buyers. Elsewhere, domestic trade of wildlife occurs on a large scale, such as wildlife-based medicinal items sold in violation of laws or without adequate regulatory systems in place, or native species hunted to supply demand for the pet or wild meat trades. Illicit online marketplaces, including through social media, have mushroomed over the past decade and cater to both opportunistic and highly organised buyers and sellers. Anything considered a luxury product such as ivory and rhino horns to live animals such as Tigers Panthera tigris, Sun Bears Helarctos malayanus and Ploughshare Tortoises Astrochelys yniphora can be ordered, bought and shipped with the click of a button without either the buyer or seller leaving their homes or place of business.
“Not a day goes by without a wildlife seizure taking place in Southeast Asia, and all too often in volumes that are jaw dropping. Seizures are certainly commendable, but what must be eradicated are the many basic enabling factors that drive and fuel illegal trade. This assessment shows the close links between ASEAN countries and the wider world. The region is source, consumer and transit personified. Only political will at all levels of government and a willingness to act will break the grip of illegal trade chains and networks,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.
The overall analysis illustrates the main problems facing the region in two priority aspects:
1. Where trade is prohibited and illegal, and
2. Where legal trade is permitted but conducted in either an illegal and /or unsustainable manner (including where trade regulations are not robust enough, ambiguous or poorly regulated and enforced, which allows illegal trade to occur).
Legally, 180 million to one billion frogs of all species have been exported from Indonesia to EU/US between 1998 and 2007, nine million freshwater turtles and tortoises from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in the 1990s and 10 million reptile skins exported from all over Southeast Asia between 2005 and 2013.
The report also proposes a renewed game plan to combat the trade. Authors have also noted that the numbers, though remarkable, comprised only seizures and could be just a fraction of the true magnitude of the illegal wildlife trade in the ASEAN region. It recognised and analysed thousands of successful seizures across 10 ASEAN countries, focusing on some of the most traded groups of terrestrial animals.
The study also profiled these countries (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and VietNam), summarising pressing local circumstances that enable illegal and unsustainable trade. The profiles propose a range of solutions to counter challenges to reduce the prevalence of illegal trade coming to or through the region.
Poor regulation of legal commercial wildlife trade also contributed to the region’s illicit trade problem, said the authors who cited the example of wild animals being laundered as captive bred as an issue of concern.
“This body of work reinforces the position and significance of Southeast Asia’s footprint on biodiversity use and management. Some positive changes have taken place in just the last couple of years but this momentum must be built upon,” said Monica Zavagli, Senior Officer for the Wildlife TRAPS Project.
The study was enabled with the support from the American people delivered through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through the Wildlife Trafficking Response, Assessment, and Priority Setting (Wildlife TRAPS) project, implemented by TRAFFIC in collaboration with IUCN.
Some shocking real facts from the report:
- •The seizure of about 225,000 kg of African Elephant Loxodonta africana ivory implicating Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and VietNam over the period 2008–2019;
- •The trafficking of an estimated 895,000 pangolins from 2000–2019, while over 96,000 kg of pangolin scales mostly of African species were seized from 2017–2019 across Malaysia, Singapore, and Viet Nam, representing about 94% of the total quantity of scales confiscated in Southeast Asia during this period.
- •The seizure of 100,000 Pig-nosed Turtles Carettochelys insculpta in Indonesia from 2003–2019;
- •Over 45,000 songbirds seized in just Sumatra and Java from 2018–2019;
- •Over 6,000 Indian Star Tortoises Geochelone elegans – originating from South Asia – seized in just 10 incidents in 2017 alone, with all of them heading to either Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore;
- • Over 3,800 bear equivalents seized in Asia, implicating almost all Southeast Asian countries, from 2000–2016;
- Populations of all the species studied are known to have been impacted by the ongoing and relentless trafficking.
Recommendations of the report
A selection of priority interventions to support strategic decision-making and actions by ASEAN governments and other partners have been drawn from the breadth of existing literature reviewed for this assessment. These interventions are grouped under five main thematic areas as follows:
• Policy – interventions focused on ensuring that national legal frameworks and regulations are fit for purpose and that it considers trends on illegal wildlife trade over time and is improved accordingly to prevent and deter wildlife traffickers;
• Law enforcement – interventions where frontline law enforcement authorities and the judiciary can optimise their impact for the disruption of wildlife trafficking;
• Demand reduction – interventions aiming to influence the purchasing preferences, buyer behaviour and use, by current and intending consumer groups;
• Cross-sector cooperation – interventions where external parties such as the private sector and professional bodies (anti-money laundering, financial investigation), civil society organisations, conservation practitioners and research institutions can assist and facilitate effective actions;
• Research gaps – interventions to address knowledge gaps to improve anti-wildlife trafficking decisions and policy