High wildlife trafficking levels in the Sulu-Celebes Seas call for tripartite collaboration

Posted on 25 May 2023

Alarming rates of wildlife trafficking have been discovered in the Sulu-Celebes Sea within Southeast Asia, amounting to over 120,000 tonnes of wildlife, parts and plants seized from illegal trade. That's equivalent to 6,000 shipping containers at max load. Over 25,000 live animals are included in these seizures.
25 May 2023, Manila: A wide range and concerning volume of wildlife are being trafficked through the region(1), and a new report calls for urgent action in this part of Southeast Asia shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  

The study reported over 25,000 live animals and over 120,000 tonnes of wildlife, parts and plants seized from illegal trade in this area between June 2003 and September 2021. The illicit trade targeted hundreds of species, from forest dwelling pangolins, freshwater turtles and elephants to marine life such as turtles, seahorses, sharks and rays.

The authors of Illegal Wildlife Trade: Baseline for Monitoring and Law Enforcement in the Sulu-Celebes Seas found that the two seas are used more as a conduit to smuggle wildlife between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, rather than as a transit pathway to other destinations.

Analysis showed that illegal trade was severely affecting marine resources in the area surrounding the Sulu and Celebes Seas, with marine turtles, giant clams, seahorses, and sharks and rays, in particular, seized in large quantities and frequently.

An examination of online wildlife trade in marine turtles, pangolins and sharks and rays (2) from September to December 2021 echoed this, finding that rays were the taxa most frequently offered for sale online in the region and were documented to be stockpiled or sold through live-streaming sessions. In just three months, over 600 online posts were found trading in turtles, pangolins, sharks and rays.

Data also revealed a substantial illegal trade in pangolins and live birds, with the latter accounting for 96% of all live animals recorded as seized in seaports in the area.

"The rich biodiversity and strategic location of the Sulu-Celebes Seas region make this area difficult to patrol and significant as a source and conduit of illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia”, says Cecilia Fischer, WWF Wildlife Law Enforcement and Prosecution Officer. “The report highlights the top traded marine and terrestrial species confiscated, emphasizes the importance of inter-agency and transboundary collaboration, and calls for a greater focus on online trade, particularly in pangolins, sharks, and marine turtles in this region.”

The report highlights the deeply interconnected nature of illegal wildlife trade in this region. It argues that solutions must involve looking at the region as a whole, making the case for much greater inter-agency and transboundary cooperation, particularly when the high number of seizures corresponded to only a low number of successful convictions reported.

“Our analysis showed that at least 45 different agencies from these three countries made arrests and seizures, where more than a quarter of incidents involved collaboration between multiple agencies within a country. We are keen to see this collaboration amplified at the regional level between countries, and TRAFFIC stands committed to support this process”, said Serene Chng, Senior Programme Officer of TRAFFIC International Southeast Asia and one of the report authors.

Alongside increased vigilance at formal and informal landing sites to intercept wildlife contraband, the report calls for strengthening the capacity of agencies on investigations, prosecution and post-confiscation handling. To strengthen tripartite collaboration, authors also urged improved inter-agency and inter-country cooperation, through stronger communications streams and joint task forces guided by practical operating procedures across agencies and borders.

The study, which also took an in-depth look at trafficking in marine turtles, pangolins and sharks and rays, also made specific recommendations, such as using existing traceability tools to tackle trafficking in these species groups and improve regulation of the legal trade in sharks and rays.  

This study carried out by TRAFFIC was partially funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Freeland through a US Department of State- Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs project combating wildlife trafficking in the region, the Targeting Regional Investigations for Policing Opportunities & Development (TRIPOD) project.

For more information contact:
Abbie Pearce, TRAFFIC Media Support Manager abbie.pearce@traffic.org I +447921309716
Jia Ling, WWF Coral Triangle Communications Lead | jllim@wwf.sg

The “Targeting Regional Investigations for Policing Opportunities & Development (TRIPOD)” project was implemented from 2021-2023 in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to strengthen the capacities of hundreds of law enforcement officials and other relevant stakeholders. National Counter-Transnational Organized Crime trainings and Care for Confiscated Wildlife trainings were held at the national and regional level to break criminal supply chains, address the challenges in the handling and repatriation of seized live wildlife, and introduce the world’s first marine turtle traceability toolkit and genetic database - ShellBank. The project culminated in a regional Special Investigation Group meeting earlier this month in Thailand, to develop a strong network and to encourage transboundary cooperation.

About the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW): The International Fund for Animal Welfare is a global non-profit helping animals and people thrive together. We are experts and everyday people, working across seas, oceans and in more than 40 countries around the world. We rescue, rehabilitate and release animals, and we restore and protect their natural habitats. The problems we're up against are urgent and complicated. To solve them, we match fresh thinking with bold action. We partner with local communities, governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses. Together, we pioneer new and innovative ways to help all species flourish. See how at ifaw.org.

About Freeland: Freeland is a frontline counter-trafficking organization staffed by law enforcement, development and communications specialists in Asia, Africa and the America who build capacity, raise awareness, and promote good governance to protect vulnerable people, wildlife, and ecosystems from trafficking, corruption, and neglect. Visit www.freeland.org to know more about our work.

TRAFFIC is a leading non-governmental organisation working to ensure that trade in wild species is legal and sustainable for the benefit of the planet and people.

About World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF):
WWF is an independent conservation organization, with over 30 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the Earth's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit www.panda.org/news for the latest news and media resources and follow us on Twitter @WWF_media.
(1) The geographic parameters for the Sulu-Celebes region includes all waters within and transit connection to and through the Sulu-Celebes Seas, and the land surrounding the Sulu-Celebes Seas, inclusive of North and East Kalimantan, North Sulawesi, Gorontalo Province, Indonesia; Sabah, Malaysia; and western Mindanao (and its island group, the Sulu Archipelago), and western Visayas, Philippines.

(2) Marine turtles, pangolins and sharks and rays are focal taxa under the TRIPOD project.

Alarming rates of wildlife trafficking have been discovered in the Sulu-Celebes Sea within Southeast Asia, amounting to over 120,000 tonnes of wildlife, parts and plants seized from illegal trade. That's equivalent to 6,000 shipping containers at max load. Over 25,000 live animals are included in these seizures.
© WWF / Wildlife Practice