While aware of the region’s richness in biological resources and its impact on global environmental sustainability, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is likewise concerned that biodiversity loss in the member countries continue to intensify as a consequence of, among others, poaching, trafficking, consumption of wildlife parts and products with results extending to ecosystems and habitat change as well.
The scale of illegal wildlife trade is alarming. Due to the illicit nature of the trade, it is difficult to obtain exact figures but experts estimate the value of illegal wildlife trade at US $10 to $20 billion annually.
Almost all wild species, including indigenous medicinal herbs, birds, reptiles, mammals, etc. are traded in the Asean region. Pangolin (scaly anteaters) is the most heavily traded exotic mammal along with the endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephant, freshwater turtles and tortoises and numerous rare orchid species. Add to the list the heightened demand for many wild animal species for bushmeat consumption.
A significant proportion of wildlife trafficked through the Asean region is purchased by wealthy consumers from outside the region. Particularly targeted are species from Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. Smugglers have frequently been caught utilizing transport links through Thailand and Vietnam. Be that as it may, poaching and illegal transit occur in all countries in varying degrees.
Humans are extracting wildlife from forests at more than six times the sustainable rate. This is done mainly through the use of forest trails for transnational smuggling. Increase in commercial logging, on the other hand, opened roads that links forests to hunters of wildlife. National parks are used as trafficking routes too. Increasing affluence in major consumer markets, i.e. China, together with huge improvements in transportation infrastructure are leading to a heightened demand for many wild animal species.
Fortunately, Asean’s 10 member countries are all signatories to the trade-control-and-regulation-oriented Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). In that connection, the problematic implementation of their respective legislations on wildlife conservation and protected areas to prevent the loss of biodiversity easily comes to mind.
CITES is aimed at protecting species that are threatened as a result of international trade. The target is that all trade shall be sustainable. In other words, no more animals or plants are to be removed than the stocks of them can bear. The convention’s provisions apply to the living species included in the convention’s list (the CITES species), and to products from these species. It names about 5,000 animal species and 28,000 plant species, including at least 20,000 orchids.
The convention limits trade in threatened animals and plants by banning imports and exports when they believe the trade will increase the risk that the species will become extinct.
The Asean region has, for a long time, been the target of illegal wildlife traders in the lucrative, multi-billion-dollar trade of wildlife in which both live and processed goods of most species are traded.
In 2005, Asean set up the world’s largest wildlife enforcement network addressing the issues of wildlife crime in the region known as Asean-WEN (Wildlife Enforcement Network).
The objective of Asean-WEN is to address the illegal exploitation and trade of CITES-listed species in the region. It links up not only with CITES but also with Interpol and wildlife law enforcement groups in the US. It likewise partners with NGOs like the Asia-based wildlife trade monitoring network known as Traffic.
As an integrated network among national law enforcement agencies, i.e., customs, police, prosecutors, specialized governmental wildlife law enforcement units, other relevant national law enforcement agencies, it is in close contact with CITES authorities.
To be more specific, Asean-WEN operates on two levels: national and regional. On the national level, each country operates an inter-agency task force composed of wildlife traffic monitoring units, police, customs, park rangers, and wildlife enforcement officers. Together, the national task forces form the backbone of a regional network dedicated to battling transnational wildlife crimes.
Law enforcement in transboundary protected areas is also being bolstered by Asean-WEN. The network is tasked to facilitate land and marine patrols, aerial surveys and access to existing military border coordination mechanisms. It especially conducts on-the-job training on effective law enforcement.
With Asean-WEN, the region in the past few years has experienced an improvement in wildlife law enforcement action. Along with hi-tech communication and built-up high level of support, the degradation of wildlife somehow slowed down. Integrating different national legal, administrative and judicial structures is still far-off. However, it can be said that the region is reasonably well, considering the circumstances attendant to illegal trade. The network provides law officers and staff the minimum knowledge required to conduct tasks on patrolling confidently and safely in the Asean tropical forest environment.
In all this, the Asean Center for Biodiversity based at UP Los Baños, an intergovernmental regional biodiversity conservation center of excellence, conducts meetings, workshops and training, and facilitates increased capacity and better coordination and collaboration of law enforcement agencies among Asean member states. It mobilizes resources and continues to forge more partnerships that enhance support for the Asean in meeting commitments to various multilateral environmental agreements like CITES and the Convention on Biological Diversity for the reduction of biodiversity loss, including wildlife loss caused by illegal trade.