Environmental journalist Jeremy Hance, a regular contributor to ALERT, tells us about the holocaust of hunting in Southeast Asia -- and what could be done to save imperiled species.
The famed author Rachel Carson warned of a “Silent Spring” in her most famous work, but in Southeast Asia it’s the forests that have gone silent.
A new study in Conservation Biology argues that overhunting is actually a bigger peril to the region’s wildlife than deforestation, despite the fact that countries in Southeast Asia have some of the highest deforestation rates on the planet.
The research, headed by Rhett Harrison with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, describes a poaching epidemic that has spread across Southeast Asia during the past 30 years, reaching even the most remote places and protected areas.
Poaching, Harrison and colleagues argue, is working its way down the wildlife hierarchy -- with large species being wiped out first, following by the progressive demise of smaller animals.
Known as defaunation, many forests in Southeast Asia today sustain nothing larger than small birds and squirrels. Earlier research had suggested that just 1 percent of the region's forests supports mammals over 20 kilograms in weight, but Harrison's team asserts that the situation is even more dire than that.
With few animals, Southeast Asia’s forests will increasingly become ecologically impoverished. Many tree species in the tropics depend on fruit-eating birds and mammals for seed dispersal. If pushed to local extinction, these animals could eventually take their dependent tree species with them, impacting everything from carbon storage to insect diversity.
HOW HAS THIS HAPPENED?
Hunters in Southeast Asia are generally not killing animals for subsistence; they won’t starve if they don’t hunt. Instead, they are shooting or snaring animals for recreation, cultural reasons, or to make a little extra money, according to the study.
Hunting in the region is also usually opportunistic. Southeast Asian hunters aren’t necessary walking into the woods looking for a single species, such as a wild pig or deer. Instead, they will often kill whatever they can eat or sell; this includes everything from freshwater turtles to small birds to big animals such as deer and tapir.
The widespread use of snares exacerbates his opportunistic, kill-whatever-comes-along approach. Snares are random killers, maiming whatever animal steps in them. Snares have been called “the landmines of the forest” and are common across the region, especially in countries that have strict gun laws.
Culture also plays a role. Many wild animals in Southeast Asia are considered delicacies or are thought to have medicinal values. And many people in the region would rather eat wild than domestic meat. In some countries, the ability to buy wild species raises one’s social status.
Harrison and his team contend that the bulk of hunting in Southeast Asia is actually for domestic consumption, rather than international trade. Sure, some animals are transported from rural areas to nearby cities, but most are not going over borders.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t professional poachers targeting animals such as tigers or pangolins for international trade. But the authors assert that the bulk of hunting is by rural people looking to bring something wild home or to sell in the local market.
NO FOREST TOO REMOTE
All this is occurring at a time when infrastructure and other development projects have bulldozed into most of the remote forests of Southeast Asia.
While road building in rainforests has long been criticized for promoting deforestation, it also creates much greater access to forests for hunters.
In Southeast Asia, new highways, logging roads, and plantation roads have infiltrated many remote areas and are allowing easy access for anyone with a motorbike. Large infrastructure and commercial projects –- such as dams, mines, and plantations –- are also bringing workers into remote areas.
Recent research has shown that Earth's forests are not only shrinking but also becoming increasingly fragmented and infiltrated by people. Core forests are vanishing, in large part from rampant road building and other infrastructure projects.
Experts estimate that by 2050, nearly 25 million kilometers of paved roads will be added to our already road-ravaged world. We'll see 60 percent more roads than we had in 2010, mostly in developing nations with high biodiversity and numerous endangered species.
In Southeast Asia, population growth is also increasing pressure on declining wildlife. Harrison and his team found that human population density was the biggest determinant of local hunting pressure in rural areas.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Harrison and his team lament that international organizations have not seemed to grasp the scale of the overhunting crisis in Southeast Asia. If they did, they say, potential solutions are available.
First, they recommend a renewed focus on securing and better managing protected areas in the region, instead of pushing for more parks.
Second, they say governments and conservationists should work with hunters -- instead of fighting against them. Hunting is outlawed in many countries, technically making anyone who takes a shotgun or snare into the wild a criminal. This hard-line stance might seem desirable to some, but the authors say it stops conservationists and hunters from working together.
Instead, the researchers say that allowing the exploitation of species that can withstand some hunting pressure -- such as wild pigs, certain small ungulates, bamboo rats, squirrels, common civets, and some birds -- could help bring conservationists and hunters together to reduce the pressure on more-vulnerable species.
Other solutions -– such as education programs, stiffer penalties for poachers of endangered species, and community conservation -– could also help turn the tide.
The research team's bottom line: To save Southeast Asia's wildlife from the gun and the snare, we need better strategies and more resources from governments and conservationists.