Coronavirus outbreak may spur Southeast Asian action on wildlife trafficking

by Imelda Abano on 4 March 2020

Illegal wildlife trafficking remains a perennial problem in Southeast Asia, but with the ongoing spread of the new coronavirus, there’s added impetus for governments in the region to clamp down on the illicit trade.
The coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, has infected more than 90,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,000, according to the World Health Organization.
Initial findings, though not conclusive, have linked the virus to pangolins, the most trafficked mammal on Earth and one of the mainstays of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia that feeds the Chinese market.
Despite having a regional cooperation framework designed to curb wildlife trafficking, Southeast Asian governments have yet to agree on and finance a sustainability plan to strengthen efforts against the illegal trade.

MANILA — Governments across Southeast Asia have vowed to strengthen cooperation in curbing the illegal wildlife trade, suspected to have sparked the novel coronavirus epidemic. The issue will be at the top of the agenda at the Biodiversity Conference in Kuala Lumpur later this month.

“What needs to be enhanced is more collaboration to address wildlife trafficking at a multi-country or at the regional level,” said Theresa Mundita-Lim of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), an institute under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “The region is ready to step up efforts to curb illegal wildlife trade.”

As of March 3, there were 90,893 reported cases of the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, around the world, with 3,110 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Cases have been reported in 80 countries, but the majority are in China. The virus is believed to have originated from a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that sold exotic live mammals, including bats and civets — previously linked to the spread of a similar disease, SARS, in 2002.

In the less than three months since the first case was detected last December, the WHO has raised the epidemic’s global risk assessment to “very high.” Various countries have declared public health emergencies, imposed travel bans, and implemented strict quarantine stations in efforts to contain the virus. Disruptions to tourism, aviation, manufacturing and other economic activity are expected to throttle back global economic growth from a projected 2.9% this year to 2.4%, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

With China’s recent move to ban the wildlife trade and consumption, officials say it’s about time ASEAN unify against wildlife trafficking, especially as reports point to a sophisticated network of illegal wildlife trade routes from Southeast Asia to China’s wildlife markets.

As early as 2003, the region started exploring solutions to wildlife trafficking after Thailand admitted to being a wildlife trade hub, open source data fusion center Analytical Center of Excellence on Trafficking
(ACET) says in its latest report. With China entering the crackdown a decade later, Southeast Asia has seen an increase in reported cases, and thousands of seizures, arrests and prosecutions.
A sunda pangolin (Manis javanensis) is a species native to Southeast Asia. Image by Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

This, however, has not been enough for the region to support a sustainability plan against wildlife trafficking, which involves each member state committing $15,000 a year. The stalemate is due in part to the bloc’s consensus voting rule. “As ASEAN is based on consensus, it only takes one out of ten members to veto a motion,” the report says.
“For nine years, Malaysia cast that vote of opposition. When Malaysia finally agreed to join the majority to support a sustainability plan, a new and surprising vote of opposition appeared: Thailand.”

But as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads, it might tip the scales and prompt ASEAN governments to support the sustainability plan and implement stringent policies to protect native species. This would also be in line with stronger measures that governments are expected to take after the lapse of the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, including the creation of heritage parks and protected areas.

“Actions on transboundary cooperation and promoting sustainable livelihoods in and around ASEAN heritage parks and natural habitats will help stop the reliance of local communities to poaching, overharvesting and illegal trading of wildlife and their by-products as means to earn income,” Mundita-Lim said.

Among the animals that need to be protected are the little-known pangolins, the most trafficked mammal in the world and which have been identified as a possible vector of the coronavirus. Recent studies have found high genomic similarities between the novel coronavirus and a virus found in pangolins, but these studies remain inconclusive. Being linked to the epidemic, however, increases the threats to these docile species as people might kill them en masse — similar to what happened to civets after the SARS outbreak, Nature reports.

Populations of these scaly mammals in the region have dwindled drastically due to heavy poaching activities in the past two decades, according to the international wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC.
A TRAFFIC report released last month estimated that around 895,000 pangolins were smuggled in Southeast Asia from 2000 to 2019.
Range of the four Asia pangolin species: the Chinese, Indian, Sunda and Philippine pangolins. A mix of colors within the maps indicates an overlap in the different species’ distributions. The species’ ranges are based on the IUCN Red List assessments (IUCN 2014). Note: The distribution maps are currently being updated by the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group. Image courtesy of University of Adelaide/TRAFFIC.
Image courtesy of University of Adelaide/TRAFFIC

There are eight pangolin species in the world, four native to Africa and four to Asia. All the Asian species are declared critically endangered by the IUCN, including the two species native to Southeast Asia: the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and the Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis).

Populations of both the Sunda and the Philippine pangolins remain unknown but are assumed to be decreasing rapidly. In Palawan province, the only place where the Philippine pangolin occurs, only 17 individuals were spotted in a 2019 survey that covered 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres) of the 165,000-hectare (407,700-acre) Victoria-Anepahan mountain range in the town of Rizal. The survey, part of USAID’s Protect Wildlife project, noted the decline in pangolin sightings in the province.

“Pangolin poaching and trafficking continue as long as there is a demand from active buyers, both foreign and local,” the report says, adding that limited information on pangolins “hampers the ability of conservationists and local authorities to establish proper baselines for protecting the remaining pangolin strongholds in the wild.”

Reports of rampant trafficking prompted international wildlife trade regulator CITES to bump pangolins into the highest bracket of protection in 2016 by banning all international trade in the species. In spite of this, however, trafficking of pangolins and pangolin parts (scales, meat and blood) continue; the biggest and most recent seizure was of 9 tons of pangolin scales, taken from approximately 14,000 pangolins from Africa, and intercepted in Hong Kong in early 2019.

Prior to the ban, pangolins were openly shipped in the region, often smuggled alongside parts from tigers and hawksbill sea turtles, both threatened species. “Pangolins were sourced and openly shipped from Indonesia, with smaller loads gathered in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and the Philippines,” ACET’s latest report states. “Since prices in pangolins were modest, the volume of trade was also relatively low and seemingly sustainable.”

The trafficking ring in the region follows an intricate maze, ACET’s report says, with animals sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia transiting through Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam until it enters China.
“Live animals and body parts were sent to Yunnan and Guangdong by road, ship and eventually by air to Kunming, Guangzhou and Hong Kong,” the report says.
A pangolin, meaning the “one who rolls up” in Malay, balls up in its characteristic defensive posture. Image courtesy of Priyan Perera

The illicit trade has since been intertwined with that of illegal drugs and other contraband, making it challenging for security forces to crack down on shipments. Indonesian authorities described the region’s illegal wildlife trade as being as sophisticated as the drug trade, according to the Global Environmental Reporting Collective’s The Pangolin Reports.

In the Philippines, the Palawan Center for Sustainable Development
(PCSD) has identified a transnational route that starts at the port of Balabac in southern Palawan and heads north to the island of Mindoro and across to the port of Batangas before exiting the archipelago.

While crackdowns on illegal wildlife trafficking continue on a top-down model, groups on the ground have also initiated efforts to engage communities against poaching not just of pangolins but other trafficked mammals in the region.

“Communities can be front-liners in the fight against poaching of pangolins and wildlife by organizing community-based efforts to protect their forests, support enforcers on the ground, and advocate for and spread the word about the importance of protecting wildlife and their habitats,” said Rebecca Paz, chief of party for USAID’s Protect Wildlife project. “We also need to look into boosting opportunities for viable and sustainable livelihoods in these communities to dissuade them from engaging in illegal practices that are harming wildlife and other natural resources.”

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