To Combat Asia’s Illegal Wildlife Trade, More Enforcement Needed

Confiscation of an illegal shipment of live turtles from a bus in Vietnam.

Confiscation of an illegal shipment of live turtles from a bus in Vietnam. (© CI/photo by Peter Paul van Dijk)

Imagine a world without birdsong, without biodiversity and with only one life-form: we human beings. In fact, we would not survive in such a world, dependant as we are upon other species. However, as the illegal wildlife trade continues to rob ecosystems of their rich biodiversity, this is the world we are spiralling toward. A world where 13–42 percent of Southeast Asia’s animal and plant species could be wiped out this century — half of which are found nowhere else on Earth. This is the world in which illegal wildlife trade exists.

The illegal trading of endangered species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multibillion-dollar illegal industry, potentially exceeding US$ 20 billion annually. With the burgeoning wealth of the world’s population, the market for illegal wildlife is rapidly increasing, adding to the coffers of organized crime groups which have links to other illicit activities such as drug and human trafficking.

Fortunately, there is another group committed to stop this trend in its tracks. I recently attended a seminar on “Strengthening ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) through Public-Private Partnerships in Legal Cooperation” during which participants showed fierce determination to combat wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asian countries. ASEAN-WEN is a law enforcement network that coordinates the region’s response to illegal trade in protected species, which is especially important since:

  • Despite occupying only 3 percent of the world’s land surface, Southeast Asia contains 20 percent of Earth’s species.
  • Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines contain three of the 35 identified biodiversity hotspots.
  • Southeast Asia is a significant exporter, importer and transit point for wildlife trafficking.

Clearly, there is a grave need to address the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. ASEAN-WEN has been taking great strides in recent years; with help from organizations such as Freeland Foundation, Interpol and the U.S. Department of Justice, the network has developed training management packages and set up a regional training centre in Thailand to train law enforcement officers on the procedure of seizing illegally caught wildlife.

A sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. Besides habitat destruction, sun bears are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, which captures the bears for the use of their body parts for consumption and medicine, as well as the pet trade. (© CI/photo by Haroldo Castro)

From 2006 to 2010, over 500 arrests have been made across the region, with over 76,000 live animals rescued, and 107,000 animal parts recovered for a total black-market value of US$50 million. ASEAN-WEN has also developed species identification guides that have been translated into local languages.

However, there is still a lack of acknowledgement that wildlife trafficking is an organized transnational crime which threatens the security of countries. This is reflected in the weak political will to combat it and hence the under-financing of task forces. In some places, law enforcement officers also lack a thorough understanding of the laws that protect wildlife and convict offenders.

Acknowledging these issues, the ASEAN-WEN seeks to strengthen law enforcement. Many organizations that are working closely with ASEAN-WEN are calling for the institutionalization of law enforcement and the treatment of wildlife trafficking as a transnational crime that threatens border security. The ASEAN-WEN is also developing a legal support programme that will provide resource guides, training courses and workshops for law enforcement officers. During the seminar, suggestions were made to make such resource guides accessible and easy to use.

But we must do more. As a law enforcement network ASEAN-WEN can only go so far to suppress the supply of wildlife from traffickers. There will always be illegal wildlife traffickers if there is demand for wildlife. We need to eradicate demand for a long-term solution. We need people who buy illegal wildlife products like powdered rhino horn, tiger bone and ivory to stop. Cultural beliefs and traditions aside, if wildlife trafficking continues at the current rate, many of these species — and their value to humans — will be gone before we know it.

CI-China is a partner of the Asia Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking (ARREST), a USAID funded campaign to combat the illegal wildlife trade and to reduce wildlife consumption across Asia. CI will work with governmental agencies and civil society to conduct a three-year public awareness and education program in south China, which is a major market for wildlife products in the region.

Without immediate action, our children will not have the opportunity to see the Indian star tortoise, the Tibetan antelope and the Sumatran tiger in their lifetimes — will not have the privilege of co-existing with these creatures on this precious Earth.

Chief Seattle once said: “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts happens to man. All things are connected.

Teh Yi Ying was previously a communications intern at CI-Singapore. She is now pursuing an undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy at Duke University. Stay tuned on the blog to learn how CI-China is working with the Freeland Foundation to address the demand for endangered wildlife in China.


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