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Southeast Asia’s Illicit Wildlife Trade: International Cooperation Necessary to Find Solution

On Wednesday March 25, immigration authorities confiscated 492 black spotted terrapin pond tortoises at the Tiruchirappalli International Airport in India. Identified as merely carriers, the five passengers with tortoise-laden luggage seemed unaware of their baggage contents and were merely promised 10,000 Rupees each for transportation, a sum of about $800 USD. Bound for Bangkok, this shipment of tortoises represents the largest attempted volume of wildlife trafficking at the Trichy Airport and highlights the trans-boundary nature of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

Preceded only by the arms and drug trade, illegal wildlife trafficking represents the third- largest illicit trade in the world. As a region, Southeast Asia remains among the most critical in terms of severity and volume of wildlife trafficking. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2013 Threat Assessment, China represents the leading consumer country in the East Asia and Pacific region, with consumption levels in South Korea and Japan on the rise. Driven by high demand in East Asia for animal products in the form of food, traditional medicine, and decoration, the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia is responsible for approximately 25% of the global industry, according to estimates made in 2005. Facilitated by expanding transportation infrastructure in Southeast Asia and the region’s porous international borders, the trans-boundary wildlife trade presents numerous governance challenges to the region’s developing nations. Not only does the illegal wildlife trade threaten Southeast Asia’s ecosystem biodiversity, but the industry also impedes economic growth and regional security because of its ties to drug trafficking and terrorism. While the role of each country within Southeast Asia is different regarding the illicit trade of live animals and their parts, the countries of the region must work together in order to develop viable governance solutions for the issue.

Facing the challenges presented by the illicit wildlife trade in Southeast Asia requires international cooperation, within the East Asia and Pacific region as well as globally. Ratified in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was among the first international efforts to mitigate the illegal wildlife trade. CITES establishes lists of species, the trade of which is illegal without proper documentation, and requires that its member parties regulate the trade of these species through national legislation.  Currently, CITES has 180 member parties, including all of the countries in Southeast Asia, China, and the United States. However, CITES merely provides a framework for enforcement and requires country cooperation to effectively reduce illegal wildlife trafficking.  Although putting an end to the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia remains an ambitious task, the efforts of CITES and ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) have generated legislative headway in the region. Recent collaboration between China, the United States, and the member states of ASEAN suggests that wildlife trafficking is a dilemma that, just as the trade itself, transcends national boundaries.

Overview of the Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia

Before introducing the various cooperation efforts in Southeast Asia aimed at combatting the illegal wildlife trade, we must first have an understanding of the unique set of ecological, economic, and security challenges that the industry presents to the region. Globally, Southeast Asia represents a hotspot for the illegal wildlife trade. Figure 1 presents data collected via a real-time, online surveillance system designed to track reports of illegal wildlife trade worldwide. Although these data do not reflect every instance of illegal wildlife trafficking, they provide a good base for comparing the trade between different regions.

According to the numbers I collected from the system on April 7, 2015, reports of illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia vastly outnumber every other region in the world. Because the region also contains numerous biodiversity hotspots, the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia threatens some of the most ecologically productive ecosystems on earth. Inextricably tied to economic development, sustainable agriculture practices, and natural resource bases, maintaining ecosystem services remains of utmost importance to developing nations. The United Nations Environmental Crisis Assessment agrees, stating, “Healthy ecosystems provide the platform upon which future food production and economies are ultimately based.” As the single largest threat to vertebrate species extinction in Southeast Asia, the illegal wildlife trade undoubtedly threatens ecosystem health as well as economic development within the region.


Black market value of commonly-traded wildlife products in Asia-Pacific region. Measured in USD. Figure 1: Information gathered on April 7, 2015 from http://www.healthmap.org/wildlifetrade


The Southeast Asian illegal wildlife trade represents a lucrative business. Figure 2 shows maximum market value data for various commonly traded illegal animal parts, information collected by the U.S. Congressional Research Service in 2008. Currently, a kilogram of rhino horn is approximately worth as much as a kilogram of gold in Vietnam. In terms of the monetary value of the wildlife trade worldwide and regionally in Southeast Asia, the illicit nature of the industry prevents researchers from making completely accurate estimations. However, the UNODC suggests that the illegal wildlife trade in in the East Asia and Pacific region is, conservatively, worth around 2.5 billion USD annually, while a Brookings Institute report suggests that the value for Southeast Asia alone is closer to 8-10 billion USD.

The magnitude of and range between these values demonstrates that the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia represents a substantial economic problem, the scale of which is largely uncertain, due to a lack of regulation and research. The economic threats posed by the illegal wildlife trade range from a potential decrease in eco-tourism due to species loss to large-scale development impediment as the trade perpetuates a cycle of poverty within Southeast Asia’s rural regions. For example, the vast majority of those who illegally harvest wildlife in the East Asia and Pacific region happen to be rural individuals seeking to boost their low income levels. Therefore, as an enterprise born out of desperation and the lack of financial resources, the illegal wildlife trade, particularly the specialized traders at the top of the industry, benefits immensely from keeping rural individuals poor. Thus, the continuation of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia does not bode well for the region’s economic future.


Figure 2: Information from U.S. Congressional Research Service on maximum market prices for commonly-traded animal products worldwide


Illegal wildlife trafficking also carries significant national security implications. In Africa, for example, ties between poaching and terrorist groups have proved particularly alarming. Although less is known regarding the connection between wildlife trafficking and other criminal organizations in Southeast Asia, the region’s illegal wildlife industry maintains strong ties with poaching throughout Africa. While this tie does not necessarily suggest that wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia is directly connected to African terrorists groups, the connection can generate security threats in the form of government corruption.

Vietnamese demand for rhino horn for use in traditional medicine spurred a sharp increase in rhino poaching in South Africa during 2013. The World Wildlife Fund recognizes government-level corruption as a contributing factor to the trade of rhino horn in the country, as officials allow free passage to select individuals transporting rhino horn. Not only does corruption in the illegal wildlife trafficking industry hinder enforcement efforts, but it also leads to political instability, as the national government loses the respect of its citizens as well as other nations.


On a similar note, Vietnam’s ties with rhino poaching in South Africa demonstrate that Southeast Asia plays a diverse set of roles in the global wildlife trade. Because the countries of Southeast Asia simultaneously serve as source, transit, and demand points for live wildlife and animal parts, tracking the origin of species traded in the region proves incredibly difficult. Similarly, the trade itself encompasses a complex set of actors. As a relatively low-risk, incredibly lucrative crime, wildlife trafficking presents an appealing option for impoverished individuals at the poaching and transportation levels as well as for experienced criminals at the highest level of the trade, hoping to supplement other illicit industries. Those responsible for the transactions are rarely caught and the transporters generally take the blame, as in the black spotted tortoise case at the Trichy Airport earlier this year. The inability to identify ringleaders within the industry perpetuates the illegal trade, as the individuals caught in the process (poor transporters and poachers) are easily replaceable. Fundamentally, the illegal wildlife trade exploits low levels of law enforcement prevalent in Southeast Asia’s developing countries, and thus undermines existing legal efforts aimed at reducing the trade.

CITES and Southeast Asia

The illegal wildlife trafficking situation in Southeast Asia is dire and benefits no one but those at the top of the trade. Nevertheless, international attention to Southeast Asia’s illegal wildlife trade has undoubtedly increased since CITES was first established. The timeline below shows the location history of the CITES Convention of the Parties (CoP). Occurring every two to three years, these conventions essentially assess the progress of member countries in terms of illegal wildlife trafficking enforcement. Held in Bangkok, the 2004 convention was the first CoP held in Southeast Asia.

In 2013, Bangkok again served as the convention host, becoming the only city to host two CITES CoP’s. CITES’s focus on Bangkok reflects international recognition that the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand, is in desperate need of regulatory help. Last year, CITES issued a warning to Thailand, asserting that if the national government continued to let its ivory market go unregulated by March 2015, it would face wildlife trade sanctions. As of 2013, Thai laws permitted the trade of domesticated elephant ivory; however, due to a lack of market regulation, poached African elephant ivory could easily make its way into the market. There has been no word thus far as to whether Thailand met CITES demands by the March deadline.


CITES is undoubtedly a useful international organization that provides information and baseline regulatory practices to its member countries; however, CITES framework must be implemented in national legislation and then carried out at major transportation centers in order to be effective. Refocusing on the recent wildlife trafficking case at the Trichy Airport, the black spotted tortoise (Geoclemys hamiltonii) falls under Appendix 1 of CITES, a list reserved for species threatened with extinction. While this listing did not deter those attempting to transport the tortoises to Bangkok, it did allow officials to halt this potential transaction and suggests that CITES protocol is being implemented, to some degree. Furthermore, a look at the CITES website news and highlights shows that ASEAN and China are making regulatory progress in the eyes of the international community regarding the illegal wildlife trade. For example, on March 11, “CITES commends leading Chinese courier companies’ zero tolerance towards illegal wildlife trade” was followed by an April 2 report titled “ASEAN member States discuss enhancing regional cooperation to combat poaching and illegal trade in wildlife.”

These positive reports regarding the illegal wildlife trade in the East Asia and Pacific region reflect CITES attention to and support of the region’s efforts. And CITES praise of China and ASEAN is not unwarranted. A group of courier companies thought to make up approximately 95% of China’s market agreed to a “Zero Tolerance” pledge with regard to the illegal wildlife trade at a World Wildlife Day symposium. The CITES website recognizes this action as a huge step because “courier service is being used as by far the most important means of transport…in the illegal trade chain.” On the ASEAN side of the equation, member states met from March 30 to April 1 of this year for a Regional Forum on Combatting Wildlife Trafficking. Held in Malaysia, the forum emphasized the importance of collaboration and cooperation in controlling the illegal wildlife crime that continues to plague the region. However, CITES openly recognizes that more work must be done on the part of national governments, listing China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam among eight countries of “primary concern.”

ASEAN-WEN’s Role in Halting Illegal Wildlife Trade

Although the process of ASEAN incorporation into CITES was gradual, all ASEAN countries were member parties by 2004. As CITES’ report suggests, recent cooperative strategies have been adopted to staunch the illegal flow of live animals and their parts throughout Southeast Asia, through the lens of ASEAN. Among these strategies include the formation of the ASEAN-WEN at the 2004 CITES CoP in Bangkok.


Number of ASEAN countries that were also member parties to CITES over the past four decades


Self-defined as “a regional intergovernmental law-enforcement network designed to combat the illegal wildlife trade,” ASEAN-WEN maintains connections with CITES, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Justice. The inclusion of two U.S. federal entities signifies a strong link between the efforts of ASEAN-WEN and the United States. Member states of ASEAN, despite the organization’s strong tendencies towards non-interference, seem to welcome U.S. input with regard to the region’s fight to stop the illegal wildlife trade.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration designed a plan to track and target wildlife traffickers worldwide using American intelligence agencies. President Obama has recognized that the ivory and rhino horn markets in Asia have grown tremendously and the problem represents an “international crisis.” During the aforementioned Regional Forum on Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, the United States served as the symposium’s co-host. While the relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN-WEN is an important factor in slowing the trade, China’s role as the region’s largest consumer of illegal wildlife products makes its inclusion in cooperative enforcement efforts vital.

China-U.S. Cooperation: The Future of Tackling the Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia

ASEAN will not be able to combat the region’s illegal wildlife trade alone. With the majority of demand for wildlife and animal products coming from outside of the region, Southeast Asia’s wildlife trafficking problem fully includes China and thus requires Chinese cooperation in enforcement efforts. Joining CITES in 1981 shortly after its opening and reform, China’s cooperation in regulating the illegal wildlife trade is essential to reducing wildlife extraction in Southeast Asia as well as Africa. The International Fund for Animal Welfare praised China in 2014 for destroying six tons of ivory in an effort to discourage the trade and promoting several campaigns to dissuade Chinese citizens from buying items made with animal parts. The campaign photograph below utilizes a play on Chinese characters to grab the attention of Chinese consumers and decrease the demand for animal parts in luxury items.


Image Source: International Fund of Animal Welfare http://www.ifaw.org/united-states/news/new-year-china-comes-new-campaign



While little cooperative action has taken place thus far, the illegal wildlife trade represents an issue in Southeast Asia through which the U.S. and China can effectively cooperate. Often viewed as competitors in the region, U.S.-China collaboration on the issue of the illegal wildlife trade could slow the flow as well as provide a common goal towards which the U.S. and China could work. Though somewhat vague in its direction, the 2013 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue generated conversation surrounding China-U.S. cooperation in combating the illegal wildlife trade worldwide. Both countries recognize that a thriving illicit wildlife trade bolsters organized crime and, therefore, severely threatens national security as well as legal economic enterprises. Jointly tackling the illegal wildlife trade could strengthen positive ties between the U.S. and China, particularly with regard to Southeast Asia.

Reducing Southeast Asia’s illegal wildlife trade not only enhances the region’s ecosystems, economic development, and regional security, but also unites national governments in the name of a common cause. Already the region has seen some progress: Vietnamese demand for rhino horn dropped by over 33% during 2014 after a series of public information campaigns disproving the effectiveness of its medicinal uses. Not only do these information campaigns seem to have been effective, but they also shows that the Vietnamese government responded to internal and external concerns regarding the country’s negative role in the global wildlife trafficking industry.

As other Southeast Asian countries as well as China continue in their efforts to regulate the wildlife trade within their own markets, international cooperation is vital in significantly reducing the trade and targeting the individuals responsible. With a large portion of illegal animal products coming into the region from Africa and then crossing multiple borders once arriving in the East Asia and Pacific region, controlling transit points in the region and developing effective law enforcement practices is key. Because animal products harvested and traded within Southeast Asia often end up China and the United States, the governments of the United States and China also have a responsibility to reduce demand and can work collaboratively to stop the supply.

The success of CITES strongly suggests that international cooperation and strict national enforcement are the keys to reducing the illegal wildlife trade. Yet, as demonstrated by the trade’s continued prevalence throughout the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, more work must be done. Cracking down on the illicit wildlife trade in Southeast Asia represents a significant cooperation opportunity for the U.S. and China, and taking this opportunity could bring positive results to relations between the two nations while also effectively reducing the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

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