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Illegal trade in animals and animal parts in south east asia Essay

The illegal trade in exotic fauna and animal parts is the third largest illegal business globally: second only to narcotics trafficking and human trafficking. South East Asia is increasingly becoming the centre of the animal trade both in the procurement stage and as a transit point, where deals are brokered and sales are made.

This trade has had a significant impact on a fragile ecosystem already threatened by human-environment conflict. Most tropical forests are already experiencing ‘empty forest’ syndrome, characterised by the absence of fauna. South East Asia has a culinary tradition of consuming exotic animals. Animal parts are also used in traditional Chinese and South Asian medicine.

The already dwindling animal population is under further pressure by the trade in protected species and animal parts. Bangkok has gained the dubious reputation as the leading city in this illegal trade. The markets of the city are teeming with numerous pet shops selling everything from puppies, avian fauna and marine life. Most of these shops are front shops where unscrupulous deals are brokered for trade in protected species.

Chatuchak weekend market displays various forms of exotic animals, ranging from Burmese pythons, birds of paradise, red pandas and freshwater turtles, all of them protected species. This paper aims to explore the magnitude of the problem, by analysing expert opinions on the issue. In addition the laws involved in regulating the trade in the region will be scrutinised. Lastly the paper will suggest possible solutions to this heinuous problem. In the process the paper aims to highlight the environmental concerns of conservationist groups and global bodies like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), TRAFFICK and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The trade is also of a global nature as a lot of animal parts are sourced from Africa. These products eventually make their way to affluent households in South East Asia and China. This paper also aims to highlight the hunter, trafficker, political patrons and trader nexus. For example ivory trade is legal in Thailand; however, most of the ivory that is traded is sourced directly from Africa. Once a key source for the exotic pet trade itself, today Thailand is more important as a major hub in the global network of suppliers and dealers. Between 2003 and 2005, US$165 million worth of illegally traded wildlife and plants were confiscated in Thailand, including more than 55,000 live animals.

The driving factor of this illegal trade is customer demand for exotic animals, with buyers often lacking an understanding of the price that nature pays for collecting exotic species. In many cases, buyers do not know or care about the well being of the animals, and are indifferent to their suffering and inhumane treatment. The trade can only be countered by vigilant monitoring of the porous borders of South East Asian nations and by increasing human awareness about the issue. If this problem is not addressed, future generations will suffer due to the skewed ecosystem that they inherited from previous generations.


While acknowledging the highly serious nature of the illegal wildlife trade, prevalent across Southeast Asia, this paper focuses on the scale, magnitude and threat this trade can cause to the ecological balance of the region. To what extent this trade has caused pressure on the social and economic balance of the region? Has economic disparity caused this catastrophe? What are the driving factors behind the trade? Are the reasons primarily cultural or are they mainly economic, driven by the massive profits?

Are the preventive laws in place effective in curbing the menace? The answers to these questions will require an understanding of the myriad actors involved in this trade. An understanding of the history and cultural motivations of the people of the region is also imperative.


Various articles published by conservationists well-versed in the wildlife trade are utilised in compiling this paper. Case studies pertaining to the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam and Laos have also been used as points of research. Most of the articles used in this paper have been retrieved from the Internet. However a number of articles have been extracted from newspaper archives and also from books on conservation. Research was also combined with conversations and discussions with wildlife conservation experts in Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal


The lack of accurate data due to the illegal nature of the trade is the biggest hindrance in figuring out the magnitude of the trade. Due to the covert nature of the trade it is near impossible to get first-hand accounts of people involved. The lack of access to libraries and inaccurate information by Thailand’s forest department are other setbacks.


The primary source reviewed is a study prepared by the Rural Development, Natural Resources and Environment Sector unit of East Asia (EASRE) in collaboration with TRAFFIC, which was funded by The World Bank-Netherlands Partnership Fund (BNPP) (October, 2008). The study involves questionnaires prepared by 89 experts on the wildlife trade.

The study states that the wildlife trade is of significant importance in South East Asia involving wide and complex networks for both sourcing and marketing and involves a diverse range of actors, including rural harvesters, professional hunters, a wide variety of intermediate traders, wholesalers and retailers, up to the final consumers of wildlife many of whom live thousands of miles away from the product source. The wildlife trade may also undermine efforts to achieve sustainable development and poverty alleviation in the region due to depleting valuable natural resources on which millions of people depend.

The Singapore book of International Law and Contributors (Lin, 2005) gives a detailed description of the preventive laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) to which ASEAN is a signatory of. Lin argues that illegal trade is not just an environmental problem, but its impact spills over to other social concerns. Further, illegal trade in animals goes hand in hand with other transnational crimes such as narcotic and human trafficking. The creation of a permit system to regulate the international

trade in species has also created opportunities for evasion of the system as criminal entities seek to exploit loopholes in the regulatory system.

Engelsberg, (2007) writes of the inability of the authorities to monitor the wildlife trade in Chatuchak market. This is due to the presence of a strong network of informers who tip off the traders. Engelsberg details the connection between legitimate pet shops and the behind the scenes vehicles where the protected species to be traded are hidden. According to Wild Aid Thailand, up to one million native and exotic birds are sold every year in Chatuchak.

Sullivan (November, 2003) says that the magnitude of the problem of illicit trafficking in exotic species is huge, because forests are like an unguarded bank. Every single product in the forest is of value, particularly the wildlife because they command a high price. Accessibility to the forests has led to an increase in wildlife trade.

The focus of Social Implications of the Wildlife Trade by Singh (2004) is on Laos. This source writes about contrasting views among policy makers and law enforcement agencies, and their unwillingness to apprehend individuals involved in the protected species trade which has led to a constant decline in wildlife in Laotian forests. This lax enforcement has also led to an erosion in moral values with hunters looking for illegal and alternative means to traffic wildlife, thus causing social conflicts and leading to the formation of illegal trafficking gangs. This has seriously threatened the social fabric of Laotian society.

Felbab-Brown (June, 2011) highlights the importance of providing alternative livelihood to hunters and poachers. As most hunters are highly marginalised and often desperately poor, focusing on finding legal livelihoods can be an important component of policy interventions to reduce the wildlife trade. Previous efforts of appointing ex-poachers as forest rangers have failed because the economic profits of the wildlife trade are far greater than a forest ranger’s salary.

Thus, some rangers continue to operate as poachers. Felbab-Brown concludes that the only solution lies in tackling demand for endangered species. This underscores the added urgency to engage the Chinese government to reining demand in the domestic market.

A TRAFFIC Report (2011) found that many of the interventions that have been employed to control illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam are believed to have been at least partially successful, although beliefs on the level of effectiveness varied among experts. However, based on survey responses and information from the literature, assumptions made about economic and social drivers in the design of intervention approaches may in some cases be misplaced.

The report also suggested that there are needs both to improve available data and knowledge about the wildlife trade, and to make this information more practical, policy relevant and more accessible to planners and decision makers. The report also urges governments across South East Asia to take a proactive stand towards the conservation efforts.

The Teaching Ecology Newsletter (Fall, 2011) highlights the plight of pangolins. This article states that Chinese pangolins were once the primary target of smugglers but because

population density is so low the smugglers have switched to the Malayan pangolin. This shy mammal is largely caught by smugglers in Malaysia and Indonesia then shipped back to tthe black market in China where they are eaten or used in traditional medicine. This article highlights the perceived medicinal value of the animal. Pangolin scales are a popular herbal remedy in China, Vietnam and Korea.

The scales are believed to cure toxins, inflammation, rheumatic pain and are also used as an aphrodisiac. Furthermore, pangolins are also stuffed and sold for decoration.

An article in chm.asean.biodiversity.org (2010) talks about the extent of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. In addition to threats brought about by known and quantifiable stresses, illegal-unreported-and-unregulated fishing is an blatant aggravating impediment to all attempts to manage fisheries resources and fish stocks in the region. Fish populations tend to remain constant under normal conditions and decline, in most cases, due to overfishing.

The article focuses on the growing demand for fisheries resources, the increase in the numbers of fishers and vessels, and the efficiency of modern fishing gear, all of which contributes to the inability of these resources to recover. Moreover, the reduced availability of fisheries resources increases competition, and prods players to resort to illegal, and more efficient forms of fishing.

The lack of capacity of the ASEAN to monitor highly mobile fishing vessels and deliberate poaching from both in-country and those coming from neighbouring countries makes it next to impossible to quantify the level and extent of IUU fishing. A recent report estimated the value of IUU fishing at the global scale to be between US$ 10 to 23.5 billion annually. Information in the same report attributes

Philippine losses in 2008 to the amount of US$ 600 million to poaching by foreign vessels and blast- and cyanide-fishing.

The bushmeat crisis is highlighted in chm.biodiversity.org (2010). The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force reported that while habitat loss is often cited as the primary threat to wildlife, commercial hunting for the meat of wild animals has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of wildlife all over the world. The task force refers to bushmeat hunting as a crisis because it is rapidly expanding. Species which were previously not at risk are now threatened due largely to an increase in commercial logging, opening up an infrastructure of roads and trucks that links forests and hunters to cities and consumers.

Drury (2009) states that wildlife depletion has serious implications for world food security and contributes directly to human livelihoods, healthcare and economics, particularly important for the poorest households. Over exploitation of wildlife threatens not only biodiversity but also those who depend on it for upholding water security, maintaining forest structure and increasing agricultural productivity. Drury also argues that wildlife trade encourages novel zoonotic infections through “unnatural cross exposure of species through human intervention”.

HIV is one such case which has reached epic proportions among the human population. The SARS epidemic of 2003 is also believed to have originated in the wildlife conflicts of South China. The article not only emphasises the need to influence public values to stigmatise consumption behaviour but also argues that the process of altering human behavioural psychology is a tedious and time consuming process.

Newer (2011), speaks about the exploitation of animal ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines especially about the use of tiger bones and other tiger parts in the cure of various diseases ranging from impotency to asthma. Newer also speaks about the global nexus of Chinese medicine highlighting the capture of 469 seizures of tiger products in the US between 2000-2009.

A report published in the Science Daily (March,2010) gives a description of the role of the porous borders between Myanmar and China in the facilitation of the wildlife trade. The article says that due to the large and unmanned nature of the China-Myanmar border, poachers in Myanmar are increasingly exporting wildlife products into China.

Another report published in the Science Daily (July, 2008) highlights a research conducted in seven major cities across China to gauge attitudes of the Chinese towards the consumption of tiger parts as medicine or otherwise. A whopping 43% of the respondents admitted to consuming products they believe contained tiger parts. However, another study by the same group found that 88% of the respondents were aware that buying tiger products is illegal and 93% agreed that China’s ban was necessary to ensure a future for wild tigers.

Nijman (2009) reports on the trade of orangutans, gibbons and other primates in Sumatra, Indonesia and highlights the attention given to primates by animal welfare groups and conservationists vis-a vis the animal trade. Orangutans and gibbons are being transported over large distances to other areas while waiting in transit at docks or warehouses. Nijman states that the population of gibbons had reduced by 50% between 1980 and 2005 and that of orangutans by nearly 35% during the same period. The study talks of the continuous human pressure on female orangutans with babies. The normal procedure is to kill the female to get a

baby. A safe estimate is that for every one orangutan brought out and sold to a dealer, three more have been killed.

The single greatest threat to the ecological balance of the planet is the illegal trade in wildlife and animal parts. Habitat loss has been pushed to a distant second due to the indiscriminate and ruthless nature of the illegal species trade. Today the illicit trade is valued at anywhere between US$ 6 to 10 billion annually. According to conservationists the problem is most acute in South East Asia. There is no single reason that one can pinpoint for this phenomena. Instead there exists a complex combination of socio-economic, cultural and political motivations that drive the animal trade in South East Asia.

In the last five years, the World Bank has approved nearly 50 projects directly or indirectly related to biodiversity conservation in East and Southeast Asia, accounting for some US$310 million of financing (Sanghvi,2009). However, there is a growing realization that these investments are being seriously compromised by the illegal wildlife trade, and that as a result the region’s forests are increasingly empty of the wildlife that makes them so unique.

The effectiveness of these projects is threatened by the absence of binding wildlife regulations and implementing bodies. The region is a centre for the consumption of wildlife derivatives. In terms of export of wildlife the region is the largest exporter of wildlife to the international market as well.

Kashmira Kakati of WWF (November,2011), Nepal says that the illegal wildlife trade consists of a complex web of trade routes and traders that form a chain which passes via South East Asia through Burma, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet to mainland China where demand

is optimum. As head of rhino and elephant conservation in Nepal, Kakati is most concerned about the illegal ivory that is being traded. Ivory is sourced from as far as nations like Malawi and Botswana and is integrated to the ivory market in Thailand where the trade is legal. Often the ivory is transported in private chartered aircraft and which is an indicator of the profits that the illegal ivory trade provides.

In Africa, poaching helicopters fly above the wildlife reserves owing to the lack of forest guards, these swoop down, shoot elephants and saw the tusks off. In an instant the helicopters fly away making it very difficult for law enforcement agencies to track the offenders and punish them.

South East Asia surpassing habitat loss as the number one danger. South east asia has been experiencing an economic boom. Households have experienced greater buying power and lifestyles have increased dramatically. As a result, this rapid economic growth has led to an increase in the illegal wildlife trade. The culinary traditions of the region include eating a number of protected species. Traditional medicine which includes those that consist of tiger and bear parts is extremely popular in the region. In addition, a large number of animals are traded to be kept as pets or trophies.

As a result of rapid economic growth, the demand for natural resources such as land, timber and nontimber forest resources has exploded across Asia. Moreover, the East and Southeast Asia region is a center for the consumption of wildlife derivatives, ranging from tiger bone medicines to shark fin cuisine. The region is also a key supplier to the international wildlife market, both legal and illegal. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the biggest driver of the illegal wildlife trade. It is a 3000 year old tradition and is used by a large population in China as well as elsewhere in south east Asia.

Tiger parts are used extensively to produce medicines for impotency, heart pain and congestion in the lungs, while bear bile is used to produce medicines for delusional diseases and to reduce pregnancy pains. TCM is also popular in the United States as is evident from the capture of more than 3000 medicines consisting of tiger derivatives in Seattle in 2007 (TRAFFIC, 2007). This goes to show the increasing global network of the illegal wildlife trade. This has led to unsustainable levels of exploitation for many of the region’s most charismatic and endangered species. The region’s forests are increasingly silent, empty of the wildlife that makes them so unique.

Vivek Menon of TRAFFIC (November,2011), says that the trade in Thailand is generally conducted in legitimate pet shops and otherwise through a network of mobile suppliers. As such animals are sourced primarily from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam making their way to the wildlife markets in Thailand from where they are transported into China.

In the case of the illegal trade in tiger parts, most of the parts are sourced from India and Nepal from where they are transported via Myanmar into Thailand and eventually traded in southern China. The transportation is made possible due to the presence of long and porous borders where law enforcement is negligible. Government authorities are frequently involved in the illegal wildlife trade. The poachers often bribe the authorities enabling the safe passage of the cache of animal parts across borders.

The wildlife trade in Sout Eeast Asia has a long history. Plants and animals were traded in Cambodia from as long back as the 10th century(Martin and Phipps, 1996). Most of the animals were traded to the rulers of Burma and Thailand. In Vietnam wildlife was presented as pets to the emperors of China (Nash, 1997).

The French explorer Garnier, on his travels to Laos in the 1960s, observed a flourishing wildlife trade in the country which included elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, peafowl feathers, and animal bone (Garnier, 1869-85). In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge come to power in Cambodia. Along with human rights abuses the regime traded nearly US$25 million worth of wild animal parts to the Chinese for weapons and supplies (Nooren and Claridge, 2001)

The Greater Mekong region which consists of the countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao PDR and China has witnessed the most intensive wildlife trade anywhere in the world (Nooren and Claridge, 2003). The reasons include cultural motivations as well as economic drivers. It is estimated that the wildlife trade is more profitable than the illicit narcotics trade. This is primarily because there are no production costs involved in the wildlife trade. This makes it highly viable to racketeers and also to the economically challenged population that is looking to make quick profits.

The motivations might differ but the volume of the wildlife trade is threatening the ecological diversity of the region on an unprecedented scale. For example, Lao PDR saw a massive increase in the population of rats. Wildlife conservationists stated the cause to be the drastic reduction in the number of snakes in the country. In Vietnam the large scale trade in illicit timber has caused an increase in the amount and regularity of floods in the country.

The increase in the poaching of predators in Myanmar has increased the number of deer in the country. As a result the people in the rural areas of the country have made deer meat a staple in their diet.

In the early 1990s, the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam was conservatively estimated at $24 million annually. In 2002, it was estimated at US$66.5 million. In 1999 and 2000, approximately 25 tons of wild freshwater turtles and tortoises were caught and exported each week from northern Sumatra to China (Shepherd, 2000). Despite continued demand, as turtles become harder to find, this trade has dropped to seven to ten tons per week.

This is a clear indicator of the near extinction of many species of freshwater turtles. Although exact numbers are not available it is estimated that nearly a ton of freshwater turtles are traded even today. At this rate conservationists say that every species of freshwater turtles will be extinct by the year 2025. In Thailand in 2003, a one day raid on Bangkok’s Chatuchak market seized 1,000 protected species worth $1.25 million. In early 2004, Chinese law enforcement seized the skins of 31 tigers—today there are only 50 tigers estimated to be left in the wild in China.


Thailand’s wildlife resources are all but extinct. Whatever little exists lives in protected forests. Due to the boom in tourism in Thailand, the centre has emerged as one of the wealthiest nations in the area. The increase in purchasing power has contributed to Thai nationals being among the largest consumers of wildlife and wildlife products in the world. Most of the key actors in the illegal wildlife trade in South East Asia are also Thai, wheather it be the trafficker, the trader or the front agencies.

Wildlife trade surveys conducted along the border areas between Thailand and Myanmar, Lao PDR,, and Cambodia since 1990, for example, identified Thai nationals as among the principal consumers of those countries’ wildlife products (Srikosamatara et al., 1992; Nooren and Claridge, 2001). In 1991, Thailand was considered by international conservation organizations as the center of Southeast Asia’s illegal wildlife trade (Srikosamatara et al,1992).

Thailand’s topography is extremely diverse. Northern Thailand is dominated by the Dawna Tasserim mountain range which is an extension of the southern Himalayan range and borders Myanmar. The central part of the

country is fed by the Chao Phraya river and is dominated by paddy plantations. The egrets that dot the rice fields are practically the last surviving wild creatures in this part of the region. The north and northeast are dominated by the Mekong river which links the country to its neighbouring countries. The south of the country is primarily a coastal region. Thailand is home to six species of venomous snakes: common cobra, king cobra, banded krait, Malayan viper, green viper and Russell’s pit viper. The black monitor, which looks like a miniature dinosaur live in some jungles of southern Thailand. In the 1990s it was estimated that more than 500 tigers roamed the jungles of Thailand.

According to the forest department less than 200 remain. Extensive poaching and lack of law enforcement lead to the drastic decrease in the numbers. The fine for killing a tiger is 15,000 Bhat with or punishment up to two years. Well-connected poachers and traders are not deterred by the weak fines and often are let out on bail, if and when they are caught. The trade of ivory is legal in Thailand though it is banned in China, this makes poaching elephants an extremely lucrative business. The failure of the government to ban the ivory trade has ensured the number of wild elephants has more than halved from an estimated 5000 in 1992 to about a couple of thousand today (TRAFFIC, 2008).

Nearly 15% of Thailand is marked as protected area with over 100 national parks and nearly 1000 “non-hunting” sanctuaries. Despite this Thailand remains the world’s hotspot for the illegal wildlife trade. The primary reason remains the weak wildlife conservation laws and deterrents. NGO’S like TRAFFIC, Overland, WWF and Bird Conservation Society of Thailand work at conservation of Thailand’s diverse flora and and fauna and also work towards influencing government policy on safeguarding wildlife. Recently more than 50 airport staff from the Hat Yai and Suvarnabhumi airport (including check-in counter attendants, baggage handlers, customs and immigration officers, police and

security officers) received intensive training in detecting and illegal wildlife being transported from those airports. TRAFFIC and government officials provided the training over a period of four days on topics such as CITES, illegal wildlife trade relevant national laws, identifying plant and animal species and ways to detect smuggling operations. This shows a strong intent on behalf of the Thai government to curb the illegal wildlife trade.

If a species has a marketable value that is greater than the marginal cost of harvesting that species, it is traded. The most significant trade is in the bushmeat area. In rural Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia, bushmeat is an integral part of everyday cuisine. Deer meat, pangolin meat and mongoose meat are extremely popular in the region. Today, as the number of large animals has dwindled almost to nothing, the most visible trade flows are in smaller mammals, reptiles, fish, and plants.

While information on the exact numbers of these species is difficult to obtain, available evidence suggests that even these relatively abundant species are beginning to be seriously affected by the trade. This poses a challenge to conservationists and government forest departments to enforce wildlife protection laws.

In Sumatra, approximately 51 tigers were killed each year between 1998 and 2002 (Shepherd and Magnus, 2004)—out of a total population of approximately 800 individuals before 1998. The majority of the parts were traded in China. Between June 2003 and April 2004, seven tigers were killed in north eastern Lao PDR; their bones reportedly were traded for over $50,000 (WCS/TRAFFIC August 2004). It is estimated that less than 400 wild

tigers remain across the region. A majority of them live in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. The number of wild tigers in the non-protected forests of the region is negligible


According to CITES trade data, between 1993 and 2003 over 80,000 pangolin skins were illegally exported from Lao PDR to international markets, primarily in the United States and Mexico. Over 15,000 pangolins were confiscated in Thailand in 2002, brought from Indonesia to Lao PDR and eventually China. Pangolin skins continue to be seized regularly in Malaysia, Thailand, Lao PDR, and Vietnam.

Arriving by air from Malaysia, more than four tons of wildlife, including water monitor lizards and over 600 pangolins, were seized in Hanoi, Vietnam, from March to April 2003 alone (C. Shepherd, TRAFFIC, September 2004). All available evidence suggests that they are disappearing throughout their natural range in Asia—largely as a result of the trade. There are nearly no pangolins in the wild in China and Thailand. Pangolins are highly in demand as trophy animals as well as for their meat.

Freshwater turtles.

Over 50 percent of Asia’s freshwater turtles (45 species) are now considered in danger of extinction in the immediate or near future as a direct result of over-exploitation for trade that 10 million freshwater turtles (or 10,000 tons) are traded annually in East Asia for use in food and traditional medicine (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia,2008).

Six tons of wild-caught freshwater turtles were seized in Hanoi, Vietnam in March 2003. They had been exported by air using false permits from Malaysia (C. Shepherd, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, September 2004). In 1999 and 2000, approximately 25 tons of wild freshwater turtles and tortoises were caught and exported each week from northern Sumatra to China (Shepherd, 2000).

Marine turtles.

Due to the lack of available data on marine turtles they have become a favourable target of poachers. Fishermen lay nets in specific areas in the sea and harvest nearly 5 tons of these turtles every week. These turtles are then sold either as pets or for their meat Almost 30,000 items made from the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle were found on sale in Vietnam in 2002 (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia Indochina, 2004), signalling the death of thousands of these marine creatures.

Water snakes.

From 1999 to 2000, over 8,500 water snakes representing five different species were estimated harvested per day from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, primarily for local subsistence and trade, possibly representing the greatest commercial exploitation of snakes in the world (Stuart et al., 2000). Water snakes are highly in demand to be showcased as pets in aquariums. Their non-venomous nature has also contributed to their value as pets.


An estimated 20 million seahorses are taken annually from the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand, of which 95 percent are destined for China for use in the traditional medicine industry, according to Project Seahorse (Gray, 2004). These adorable animals are also used as pets and for their meat.

Characteristics of the Trade

Illegal domestic and international wildlife trade is a commodity business driven by a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural forces. The primary reasons are the increase in connectivity, the increase in access to markets and the rise in purchasing power and economic development in the region. The relationship between the different actors in the trade keeps

changing. The harvestors are often marginal farmers operating in the rural areas of the region. At other times professional hunters armed with sophisticated weapons and efficient means of transport play the role of procurers. Traders rapidly adapt to changing circumstances to maintain their substantial income. When supplies become depleted or access restrictions are imposed, they respond by:

•Targeting new source areas or countries for a particular species or group of species. Since the pangolin is nearly extinct in the GMS region today, they are imported from Malaysia and Indonesia.(TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, 2004). This shift is a clear indicator of the complexity and sophisticated planning of the poachers.

•Developing new smuggling methods and routes to avoid detection. During the boom in prices of bear bile and bear parts in Vietnam in the early 2000s, smuggling of bears was accomplished by fake army vehicles, fake funerals, and even fake ambulances complete with the bear dressed as a patient and surrounded by concerned relatives (SFNC, 2003). Leopard skins are sewn inside carpets when they are transported from Burma to the wild life markets of Thailand.

• Exploiting weak wildlife law enforcement.
Wildlife is relabelled to convince customs officials that rare species are actually common species that are legal to trade and that only when they are actually caught in

possession of wildlife. Law enforcement authorities are often bribed or are part other smuggling teams themselves. Many politicians patronize the poachers and the traders. Even

when caught, fines and other penalties are generally much less than the risk premiums gained from the trade, negating their effectiveness as disincentives.

•Targeting new species within a commodity group. The dip in the availability of pangolins brought up a massive increase in the number of mongoose traded. The scarcity of boa constrictors instigated the number of Burmese pythons that are hunted. The scarcity of langur (leaf monkey) bones for the medicinal trade has led to a rise in the collection and sale of macaque bones; although the latter are considered less effective in traditional remedies (SFNC, 2003), the similarities between the bones are enough to either at best deceive or at least satisfy customers and in so doing, maintain the market.

As wildlife law enforcement efforts increase, the illegal trade moves underground. It becomes more difficult to monitor activity, or determine the quantities, value, or number of species involved.

Roles Played by Nations in South East Asia

China is the region’s largest consumer, particularly of animal and plant products used as food and ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. Demand for the illegal wildlife trade is mainly driven by traditional Chinese medicine.

Cambodia is primarily a source country, particularly for reptiles, primates, and plants, and formerly for timber.

Vietnam was primarily a source nation but due to its rapid economic developments it is increasingly becoming a consumer nation. It is also an important link in the trade route to China

Thailand is particularly a consumer of high-value pets, trophies, and food products, while also playing an important role as a regional and transit point for the international market.

Lao PDR and Myanmar are the biggest source for the procurement of wildlife. Both countries are important transit points ; Myanmar for wildlife products coming Thailand from the Indian subcontinent, and Lao PDR to international markets in neighboring nations (China, Vietnam, and Thailand).

The illegal wildlife trade goes hand in hand with the illegal drug trade.The report issued by the US Drug Enforcement Agency states that narcotics were being transported across the US-Mexico border hidden in the bellies and body parts of animals. This gives further leverage to the traffickers who are armed with more money and resources provided by the drug cartels.

This provides a dual threat for enforcement agencies. Often the animals are fed miniature packets of drugs and are killed on arrival after which the drugs are retrieved. This has created specialised gangs that operate in many different stages.

Preventive Laws and Regulations

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention) is an international multiparty treaty drafted in 1963 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The primary objective of CITES is the conservation of animals and plants that are threatened by the illegal

wildlife trade. It provides varied degrees of protection to 33,000 species of plants and animals. It is one of the largest conservation agreements in existence. Countries are not bound to sign it, however, those that have ratified it are bound to follow the regulations of CITES. It, however does not replace national laws that are already in existence. It provides a framework to nations for the formulation of national laws. Often regulatory laws are non-existent or the penalty does not match the gravity of the crime. Most nations do not have significant laws pertaining to wildlife trade.

About 5000 species of animals and 28000 species of plants are protected by various degrees and are listed in three categories that are called Appendices (TRAFFIC,2009). Amendments to the agreement must be supported by a two thirds majority. There are various criticisms of CITES. Foremost among those is that it does not address other core concerns like habitat loss.

It focuses primarily on trade and ignores other factors that can cause the extinction of a certain species. Another criticism is that it allows trade of species if the requisite permits and licenses are acquired. That being said only one species that was listed in CITES, the Spix’s Macaw has become extinct (CITES. (n.d.). http://www.cites.org).

Recommendations and Conclusion

The largest driver of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia is the nearly insatiable demand for exotic fauna as culinary items, in traditional Chinese medicine and as trophies. A sea change in attitudes towards wildlife consumption is possibly the only probable solution to stop the illicit trade in protected species. Educational campaigns aimed at stigmatizing wildlife consumption need to be enforced at different levels of society, including at schools, workplaces and at public forums. When demand exists there is bound to be a supply.

The illicit wildlife trade is primarily a transnational crime which is being facilitated by greater connectivity among the nations in the GMS region and the lack of any form law enforcement pertaining to wildlife across the borders. A multipronged international vigilance agency which can monitor illicit wildlife trade at different levels will help curb the trade by significant numbers.

For the unique wildlife of Southeast Asia to survive, it is imperative to engage poachers, hunters and gatherers, who are often from the margins of society and the lowest in the hierarchy among the many actors of the wildlife trade, to disengage their illegal activities. A need to provide them with alternative and economically sustainable livelihoods that directly affect the number of species available in the illegal wildlife market.

Another good idea would be to focus on the value that wildlife has in its natural surroundings. Opening up of sanctuaries and national parks where the villagers, indigenous people, hunters and gatherers are appointed as rangers and tourist guides can provide economic benefits to this section of people, thus making them responsible for the preservation of the forests and the wildlife in it even if merely for economic reasons. Like in the case of the environment and carbon credits monetary incentives have proved to be the best way to prevent illegal activity.

The unique biodiversity if Southeast Asia is under severe threat from the large magnitude of illegal wildlife trade taking place in the region. Unless preventive laws are strengthened and greater co-operation among states is achieved, the ecological imbalance caused may prove to be irreversible.

This paper briefly examined the cultural and historical reasons that drive the demand for the illicit species trade. It also examined the roles played by different states involved in wildlife trade while also focusing on the hierarchy of the different actors involved in the trade. While examining different factors and aspects of the trade, it is easy to determine the eventual harm this menace can cause to the lives and livelihoods of the poorest inhabitants of the region. In the absence of strong monitoring and vigilance this trade could forever alter the topography of the region.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which all ten member states of ASEAN have ratified, is a good starting point and is growing in effectiveness. However for greater efficiency in curbing the illicit wildlife trade, individual nations should increase monitoring of wildlife related activity within their borders. Furthermore nations should increase co-operation in curbing the illicit wildlife trade. The stakes are far too high to not proceed in a cautious and responsible manner.


ASEAN Association of Southeast Asian Nation

CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
CoP13 The Thirteenth Conference of the Parties (CITES)

GMS Greater Mekong Sub-Region

FAO Food and Agriculture Organization

IUCN The World Conservation Union

UNDP United Nations Development Program

WCS Wildlife Conservation Society

WWF World Wildlife Fund


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