Whither Wildlife?



Posted on 10 June 2013  | 

Regional Transformation Requires a Consistent Strategy on Commerce in Wild Plants and Animals

Opinion piece by Dr. William Schaedla, Regional Director, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia 

With Naypyidaw hosting the World Economic Forum (5-7 June) and poised to assume leadership of ASEAN next year, a seismic shift is underway in Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s recent bold economic and political reforms have sent ripples through the region’s entire investment and development landscape. Their magnitude is apparent in the interest they have attracted from foreign corporate, civil society, and diplomatic actors.

Capitalizing on international attention will be critically important as Myanmar goes on to preside over economic integration between ASEAN’s ten member economies in 2015. The World Economic Forum, its varied participants, and the broad range of topics covered, provide a sampling of things to come when the ASEAN Economic Community comes into force. Environmental issues are on the agenda. They enter under the impacts of climate change, maintenance of food security and plans for greening infrastructure development. Wildlife trade, however, is less prominent. It is there in the margins and in relation to other topics, but occupies no prima facie status in the discussions. The omission could cost ASEAN’s member states dearly.

The Price of Wildlife Trade

‘Wildlife’, defined broadly includes all non-domestic plants and animals. Collectively, the trade in these species is enormous. It provides foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, building materials, clothing, cultural and religious items, work animals and even pets. According to data published by the United Nations, the combined global value of such products in 2008 carried an approximate annual value of USD 324 billion. Southeast Asian trade in these products is correspondingly immense, even if it is somewhat harder to pin down in terms of absolute value. One published assessment indicates that between 1998 and 2007, the region exported over 35 million animals. Notably, this calculation did not include fish, timber or other plant products.

Countries like Myanmar and her ASEAN neighbors frequently find themselves at the supplying end of wildlife trade chains because they still hold substantial wilderness within their borders. Southeast Asia is one of the most biologically rich regions on the planet; its regional flora and fauna are often endemic to specific sites. Because the wildlife occurs in specific limited settings, it tends to be valuable in trade. Because the settings are often remote, they tend to be loosely governed and vulnerable to exploitation. The situation is daunting, but ASEAN governments stand to lose much if it is not addressed. Badly controlled wildlife trade deprives them of direct revenue from sales of state managed natural resources. It also circumvents indirect revenue from taxes on private sector imports and exports. Beyond this, it deprives communities and destabilizes governments locally. In 2005, it was estimated that over a quarter of the people in Southeast Asia depended on wild plants and animals. Poor local people are frequently unable to afford or access commercial alternatives. Losses of wildlife consequently stand to erode vital coping and survival mechanisms for a large part of Southeast Asia’s human population.

Finally, in cases where regulations are in place but enforcement is lacking, illegal wildlife trade has been linked to other crimes like money laundering. Globally and within Asia, there is also evidence that insurgent groups support their activities via sales of contraband that includes wildlife. Illicit wildlife trade engenders an erosion of state authority and contributes to a culture of corruption.

Change for the Worse

Wildlife trade is also driving species to extinction. Tigers are all but gone from their former habitats across Asia and, with only 3000 left outside of captivity, are at serious risk of being lost forever from the wild. Two of three Asian rhinoceros species are even closer to disappearing. Sumatran Rhinos once inhabited rainforests, swamps and cloud forests across Asia. Today they are critically endangered, with fewer than 275 remaining in Malaysia and Indonesia. Similarly, Javan Rhinos were once the most widespread of Asian rhinoceroses, but are now among the rarest animals anywhere in the world. A mere 40-50 remain on a tiny peninsula in Indonesia.

Tiger parts and rhinoceros horn are arguably the best-known illegally traded wildlife products, but many other species have fallen into drastic decline as a result of their high black-market commercial values. ‘Silent’ or empty forests prevail across Asia as a result; the trees remain standing, but animals are gone. The danger in this is one of cascading effects. Plants depend on animals to fertilize and disburse themselves. Losing a bat that pollinates flowers, or a bird that scatters seeds also puts an end to forest regrowth. With no new trees to replace old dying ones, forests contract over time. Subsequently services they supply are also likely to be lost. Climate moderating effects, watershed maintenance, and erosion prevention are just a few of benefits people derive from healthy forests.

Foreign Relations

Forests and wildlife are not constrained by national boundaries; losses in one country are likely to be felt by its neighbors. Poachers move across ASEAN’s porous borders with impunity. They exploit wildlife without regard for national sovereignty and ship the contraband globally. Consequently, the United Nations has recognized wildlife trafficking as serious transnational crime.

This problem was recently highlighted in Southeast Asia. In March of this year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) met for the 16th time in Bangkok. At that meeting, Thailand came under scrutiny for failing to properly regulate its national ivory trade. Loopholes in the country’s laws currently fail to prevent illegally imported foreign ivory from being passed off as a legal domestic product. Vietnam was also notified that rhino horn smuggling is increasing across its borders. These are issues of serious international importance. African countries being robbed of their elephants and rhinos spend millions of dollars annually on protection efforts. Even so, they are losing because poaching funds insurgencies and park authorities are often woefully outgunned. Clashes with heavily armed militant groups cost dozens of rangers their lives each year.

To their credit, both Thailand and Viet Nam are taking strong measures to address the crisis. Thailand’s Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, announced plans at CITES to ban all ivory sales in the country, while senior authorities in Viet Nam are engaged with South African counterparts on cooperative law enforcement.

Other countries should be mindful that Thailand and Viet Nam are far from unique. All Southeast Asian nations presently face profound unresolved issues with wildlife trade, and all are likely to face increasing international scrutiny as the ASEAN Economic Community becomes a reality. Under common border economic integration, any imbalances in enforcement or inconsistencies in national laws will surely see wildlife criminals moving to exploit the weakest nations in the bloc. The European Union addressed this potentiality when it was formed by implementing a common CITES framework that encompasses all of its member states. ASEAN has yet to adopt a similarly consistent approach to wildlife laws and enforcement.  Myanmar has an opportunity to make such a legacy part of the reforms it brings to the region. Where better to start such a discussion than at the present World Economic Forum?

Dr. William Schaedla is the Regional Director for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring arm of WWF and IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. He has worked on environmental issues in Southeast Asia for over two decades.
Illegal wildlife trade. Tiger (Panthera tigris), skin seized at customs.
© Wil Luiijf / WWF-Canon Enlarge
Most ivory is purchased in Thailand is bought by international tourists although it is illegal to bring home.
© WWF-Canon / James Morgan Enlarge
Some black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) are under 24 hour armed guard due to risk of poaching Africa.
Some black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) are under 24 hour armed guard due to risk of poaching Africa.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon Enlarge

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