Selling Noah's Ark? The collapse of Asia's bird biodiversity

From her base in southern China, ALERT member Alice Hughes gives us a perspective on the daunting challenge of the illegal wildlife trade, which seems to have a global epicenter in Asia.

Popular species: spectacular Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise from Indonesia

Popular species: spectacular Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise from Indonesia

If you have ever ventured into the forest you will know the whine of insects, and the ringing calls of birds that envelope you as you breathe in the humid air. 

Now, imagine that forest without the calls of the birds or the rustle of vertebrate life.  You are imagining the forests that are fast becoming a reality across much of Asia, under the relentless pressure of hunting for various forms of trade.

Indonesia is one such case.  As a global biodiversity hotspot for birds, it now finds itself a market for their extinction.  A TRAFFIC survey released this week found an incredible 19,000 birds of 206 species for sale -- at just three markets in Jakarta and in just three days.  And only 2 percent of these birds were legally harvested.

Among the birds found in Jakarta markets, 41 species are endemic (unique) to Indonesia.  Further, nine of the species are classed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, four of which are Endangered or Critically Endangered.

The stunning number of birds found in just three days suggests that the annual sale of birds in Indonesia would involve hundreds of millions of individuals, including many globally endangered species.

Birds for sale in a Jakarta market  (Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC)

Birds for sale in a Jakarta market (Kanitha Krishnasamy/TRAFFIC)

A Songbird Crisis Summit will be held in Singapore this week to highlight the illegal bird-trade crisis, and to seek strategies to secure a future for birds across the region.

Without rapid action to enforce existing laws and enact new regulations, we will undoubtedly witness the extinction of bird species from across the Asian region.  These forests may no longer ring with the calls of species found nowhere else on Earth.

Pangolins in peril: The most heavily hunted animals on Earth?

ALERT member Alice Hughes is based in China -- the global epicenter of demand for the illegal wildlife trade.  She tells us about a little-known animal whose fate is looking increasingly dire.

If you were to ask a member of the public what is the most hunted and trafficked species on Earth, chances are few would get it right.  In fact, many would never have even heard of it.

An African tree-pangolin  (photo by William Laurance)

An African tree-pangolin (photo by William Laurance)

That animal is the Pangolin -- a creature so peculiar-looking that it seems to have been dreamed-up by a mischievous Creator. 

There are, in fact, eight species of Pangolins on Earth, all found in warmer regions of Asia and Africa.  While looking vaguely like an armadillo, pangolins are unique creatures that aren't closely related to anything else.

Prized as culinary delicacies and in some traditional 'medicines', Pangolins are hurting.  In just the last decade, an estimated one million Pangolins have been poached and illegally trafficked.  Nearly 220,000 of the animals were seized by authorities from 2010 to 2012, and that's likely just a small fraction of the number actually being traded.

To put these numbers in perspective, around 110 Pangolins are currently being seized for every seized rhino.  It's a big worry because pangolins are slow-breeding and solitary creatures. 

Recent seizures of illegal shipments, some involving tons of killed and frozen animals, hint at the scale of the international trade. 

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Thousands of dead pangolins seized in an illegal shipment in Indonesia

Hong Kong is a distribution hub for Pangolins between China and the rest of Asia.  Nine-tenths of all Pangolin seizures have occurred in China, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent four other Southeast-Asian countries.  China and Vietnam are considered the biggest markets for Pangolin products.

Yet few people in Southeast Asia understand the Pangolin's plight. 

A recent survey of 1,000 Hong Kong residents showed that 7% had never heard of Pangolins, 85% wrongly regarded Pangolin scales as medicinal, and 50% thought their meat was medicinal.  Moreover, 33% were unsure of the legal status of eating Pangolin and 11% regarded it as legal.

Unfortunately, similar confusion reigns throughout China.  In mainland China, the trading of older “certified” pangolin parts is legal, and trading certificates for wildlife products are widely forged and abused.

Pangolins are captured in the wild using a variety of methods.  Once in captivity their body weight may be almost doubled through force feeding or subcutaneous fluid injections, as Pangolins are sold by weight.  Professional traffickers sell Pandolins for hundreds of dollars per kilogram.

In just the last decade, Pangolins have gone from being so common that you could hardly fail to see them at night in Asians forests, to being so rare that Chinese rangers laugh if you ask them if Pangolins are in their park.  On being given 42 confiscated Pangolins earlier this year, rangers at Bac Ninh park simply resold them.

As a result of such intense exploitation, two of the Asian Pangolin species are now formally listed as endangered, and the remainder are clearly in trouble.  Unless strong actions are taken soon, we could witness the dramatic decline and even global extinction of several Pangolin species.

It'd be a sad end for what might be the most heavily hunted animals on Earth.

 

Wildlife poaching: Conservation on the borders

Dr Alice Hughes, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in southern China, tells us about an important conference that was recently held there.

Pangolins in peril  (photo by William Laurance)

Pangolins in peril (photo by William Laurance)

A recent conference on transboundary conservation held at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden drew international attention following an inspiring closing address by Britain's Prince William.  The event focused on the massive illegal cross-national trade in wildlife.

The closing of the conference highlighted the threats to Southeast Asian biodiversity, driven by the illegal trade of species of all sizes -- not just big species such as Elephants and Rhinos.

One animal at particular risk is the world's most trafficked animal, the Pangolin, with all six species in Asia now globally threatened with extinction.  The trafficking along one particular route is now so prevalent that it has been labeled “the Pangolin express”.

The legal trade of certified products from CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- lists species such as the Pangolin as a key priority. 

Another concern is ivory, which has led to the widespread slaughter of Elephant species in Africa and Asia.  Legally traded ivory has provided a loophole for its illegal trade, with studies showing that almost 60% of certified traders violate regulations and these loopholes prevent and weaken enforcement efforts.

Bushmeat has changed from being a subsistence activity to provide food for the poor, to an internationally commercialized industry to serve the demands of the rich.  As a result hunters, using lethal technologies such as high-powered rifles and cable snares, go to increasing lengths to procure valuable bushmeat.

These transnational issues in the trade in endangered species and the lack of enforcement in their trade threaten the future existence of many vulnerable species on regional and global scales.

Better education to limit demand, and increased enforcement to restrict trade -- including a complete ban in the trade of CITES-listed species -- will likely be needed to change trade patterns and save imperiled wildlife.