A forum called "Conservation Asia 2016" was recently held in Singapore. A key result from this leading scientific conference -- involving some 600 delegates from 37 nations -- was a formal Resolution on the perils posed by the illegal wildlife trade. Here, researchers Jacob Phelps, Chris Shepherd, and Tony Lynam tell us why we should be very, very worried about the illegal wildlife trade in Asia.
Illegal, commercial wildlife trade is one of the most dire threats to Asian wildlife. It affects not only charismatic species, such as tigers, elephants and rhinos -- but also plants and animals whose names are barely known to most, or have only recently been discovered.
Examples of such obscure or newly discovered species include the Saola, Kha-nyou, Canh's Paphiopedilum, and Roti Island Snake-necked Turtle. All are now threatened with extinction from illegal trade. Sadly, Southeast Asia has the unfortunate distinction of having more Critically Endangered species than anywhere else on Earth.
Whereas small-scale, subsistence wildlife harvesting is common in Asia, threats from the commercial illegal wildlife trade are escalating rapidly. Much of this is coordinated and facilitated by organized crime networks -- and the scale of such operations can be both massive and devastating.
High Demand for Rare Species
An increasing number of species are threatened by the growing demand for speciality food, trophies, luxury items, medicines, and pets. As their numbers decline, the commercial value of many species increases, exerting even more pressure on their dwindling populations.
The huge economic incentives to participate in these illegal trades means that wildlife crime is not only more widespread, but often increasingly commercial, sophisticated, and organized.
Along with large amounts of cash, criminal gangs involved in wildlife crime have networks of contacts to help move wildlife from their source site through international ports, airports and border crossings to the final marketplace.
Low Risk for Criminals
At the same time, the risk to the criminals involved is extremely low, as weak enforcement enables illegal widespread activities. This includes not only corruption, but low awareness about wildlife trade among police, prosecutors, and judges.
There is also inadequate motivation, incentives, and support for enforcement staff; legal loopholes; and huge lapses in monitoring. Enforcement challenges are growing with the boom in Asia's Internet-based wildlife trade.
However, many proposed solutions to the burgeoning illegal wildlife trade remain poorly evaluated, or are based on limited data and flawed assumptions. In a day-long symposium in Singapore, wildlife-trade experts highlighted their insights on policy solutions.
The talks revealed how responses to the illegal wildlife trade are often very polarized.
Policies can involve increased restrictions, monitoring, and enforcement, which are widely considered central to reducing illegal harvest and trade in Asia.
However, some argue that captive breeding of wildlife could potentially reduce threats to wild plants and animals, by substituting protected wild specimens with legally farmed alternatives.
As the conference revealed, there is a pressing need to evaluate and understand these two strikingly different approaches, to ensure that policies are based on research rather than biases and assumptions.
Declaration for Action
Here are some key messages from Asia Conservation 2016 Resolution:
1. The research community has lagged behind the conservation-practitioner community in recognizing the urgency of the illegal wildlife trade. There is an dire need for research on trade and prospective interventions and solutions.
2. Countries must ensure effective enforcement of CITES -- the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species -- or risk trade sanctions devised by both CITES and the World Trade Organization.
3. Enforcement should go beyond seizures of wildlife at customs points; additional priorities include monitoring of wildlife markets and online forums, and effective prosecution of violators.
4. It is vital that commercial captive breeding of wildlife does not have a negative impact on conservation. For instance, it may be very difficult to distinguish between wild-caught and captive-bred individuals, making enforcement efforts far more difficult.
For further details and recommendations see here.
The bottom line: The illegal wildlife trade is virtually wiping out some species, and may actually cause or contribute to their global extinction. If we fail to combat these illegal activities we may soon be faced with vast expanses of savagely depleted and silent forests.