Alarming online wildlife trade in Asean

Oct 11, 2020 | News

By Amado S. Tolentino, JR., The Manila Times

Sometime in 2005, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) set up a network known as the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-WEN) to address its commitment to the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (Cites), which regulates collection and trade in wildlife so as to protect and conserve wildlife species and their habitats, ensure ecological balance and enhance biological diversity. The network links up with Interpol, wildlife enforcement groups in the United States and nongovernment organizations such as the Asia-based wildlife trade monitoring network known as Traffic.

Asean-WEN operates on two levels. At the national level, each country maintains an interagency 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.

Mention should also be made of the Asean Center for Biodiversity, a regional intergovernmental biodiversity conservation center based in University of the Philippines Los Baños, which mobilizes resources and continues to forge more partnerships that enhance support for Asean in meeting commitments to various multilateral environmental agreements like Cites and the Convention on Biological Diversity or CBD for the reduction of biodiversity loss, including wildlife loss caused by illegal traffic.

No wonder Asean experienced some years of improvement in wildlife law enforcement. Lately, however, enforcement action somehow slowed down brought about by illegal online wildlife trafficking which enables traffickers to hide behind social media platforms.

The scale of the illegal wildlife trade is alarming. Due to the illicit nature of the trade, it is difficult to obtain exact figures, but experts estimate a loss of approximately $20 billion annually. It is considered the fourth largest illegal trade in the world after illegal drugs, arms and human trafficking.

Ironically, what lends credence to the estimate is the identification of some Asean species as objects of illegal trade mainly because of false claims that those are cures for some maladies. For example, in 2011, “tuko” or gecko was said to cure asthma, tuberculosis and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS.

In the current health crisis, the pangolin was identified as the world’s most trafficked non-human mammal and mentioned by media as a possible intermediate host of the novel coronavirus — Covid-19, also known as SARS-CoV2 — picking up the pathogen from other species in the wild.

(Pangolins are largely covered in scales made of keratin — the same material as human fingernails — which give them the nickname “scaly anteater.” When chased, they roll like a ball.

In May 2020, sacks-full of pangolin scales from Palawan were found in a Wuhan warehouse destined for exotic wildlife markets. Pangolins are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered.)

In traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales are used to help those afflicted with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis. Their meat is also a delicacy among the wealthy in China.

In the Asean region, targeted species for illegal trade usually originate from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Aside from folk medicine and bushmeat consumption purposes, wildlife is also trafficked as ornaments and for the pet, zoo and aquarium trades, e.g. birds, reptiles and mammals. Other Asean wildlife which are the objects of illegal trade include, but is not limited to, the endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephant, freshwater turtle and tortoises. Those are hunted to the brink of extinction due to beliefs in the potency of their body parts, especially as aphrodisiacs.

While illegal trade in wildlife is done in many ways, one of the latest methods is through an unsuspecting source — the internet.

Advances in technology and connectivity across the world have increased the ease of exchange from poacher to consumer. As a consequence, an unregulated online market allows criminals to sell illegally obtained wildlife products across the world. Purchasing wildlife had become as easy as “click-pay-ship” through smart phones. They provide easy accessibility and concealed communication schemes which make it difficult for authorities to track.

Fortunately, the world’s biggest e-commerce, technology and social media companies have joined forces in the effort to shut down online marketplaces for wildlife traffickers. The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online brings together companies from around the world (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Microsoft, Google, eBay, OfferUp) in partnership with wildlife experts at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Traffic in an industry-wide approach to reduce wildlife trafficking online.

The coalition convenes dialogues between partners to share lessons learned and best practices. WWF, IFAW and Traffic, on the other hand, provide companies with updated global and regional trade trend data, training materials, policy guidelines and educational information for users to help spot illegal products.

Thus far, the coalition has flagged down more than 4,500 wildlife products for sale online, identified 170 suspicious wildlife codes for tracking purposes and trained 470 people on how to identify illicit wildlife products offered online. Indeed, the cooperation of technology companies is critical in the fight against cybercrimes as wildlife traffickers are abusing the anonymity of the internet to illegally trade endangered wildlife.

In this connection, a most recent report confirmed that internet listings for products made from or associated with endangered species are being either continuously blocked or taken down by technology firms comprising the coalition. These include live tigers, reptiles, primates as well as products from the body parts of endangered species such as pangolins and marine turtles.

The coalition, however, cannot do it alone. Asean-WEN should be revitalized to facilitate exchange of best practices and knowledge in combating illegal online wildlife trade in endangered species in the Asean region. Asean countries should also develop ways and means based on their own experience in dealing with the illegal wildlife trade in order to outwit more innovative illegal traders and criminals who, more often than not, escape the consequences of breaking the law because of corruption, the leading deterrent to effective wildlife law enforcement.

The partnership with the world’s biggest online companies through the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online is the best thing that ever happened in the fight against wildlife cybercriminals seeking to exploit web-based platforms to profit from endangered wildlife at the expense of sustainability.
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