Illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade is currently the second-leading cause of species extinction worldwide and the fourth-largest illicit trade operation. The illegal trafficking of wild species is estimated to be worth between $7 billion and $23 billion annually. These profits, however, come at the expense of driving many species, such as the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the cheetah, nearly extinct.
In recent years, the rise of illegal wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia has turned the region into one of the world’s most notorious “wildlife trade hotspots.” As the illegal trade market has flourished, however, the region’s biodiversity has been placed under extreme stress. In Southeast Asia alone, illegal wildlife trades have an estimated total value of $8 billion to $10 billion per year.
While evidence tying the outbreak of coronavirus to China’s Hunan Seafood Market, along with pandemic-driven social restrictions and international border closures, made many people reluctant to engage in these trades for a while, unemployment and the rising price of goods prompted thousands of migrant factory workers to return to their rural villages, where they began to hunt animals.
As a result, although the outbreak of COVID-19 led to a decrease in consumption of wildlife, the increased rate of incidental hunting for other purposes has continued to cause significant damage to local ecosystems. Wildlife products are used for a number of different consumption purposes, but luxury items made from the skins of poached tigers and elephant ivory are some of their most prominent uses.
One significant cause of concern is the rising threat to Southeast Asia’s tiger populations. Data collected by a global animal protection agency during the first six months of 2022 showed an alarming rise in tiger trafficking incidents in Indonesia, Thailand and Russia when compared to figures collected in the same timeframe since 2000.
While the illegal wildlife trade has long been conducted in physical markets, the rise in internet access, especially since 2010, has facilitated the illicit trade of live animals, as well as commodities featuring their parts.
A recent study on the international wildlife trade also brought to light Southeast Asia’s significant role in both the legal and illegal trade of rare and endemic species from Madagascar. These countries sometimes served as transit hubs or re-exporters, while at other times they became the species’ final destinations.
Among the nations involved in the trade, Thailand stands out as one of the most heavily implicated in the study. Not only is Thailand one of the biggest destinations for traded wildlife, but its northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom also acts as a major crossroad in a trading chain that connects to Laos and continues on to Vietnam and China, two of the world’s largest markets for elephant and rhinoceros parts and endangered species of tiger and pangolin.
Thailand’s History of Wildlife Trade
Although Thai leaders have long recognized the ecological danger of Thailand’s involvement in both the legal and illegal ivory trades, putting an end to it has been difficult. Part of the reason the trade has continued to grow stems from the profitability of ivory channeled through Thailand as it moves from Kenya to Laos and beyond.
Unfortunately, efforts to address these international crimes in court rarely succeed. One notable exception is the case of Bach “Boonchai” Mai, who was first arrested by Thai police in January 2018, then walked free in February 2019, and was later convicted by the Thai Supreme Court in 2022. Although Bach remains on the run, his five-year prison sentence marks an important symbolic victory in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.
In November 2019, merely months after Bach’s initial release in February of the same year, Thailand passed the 2019 Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act, replacing legislation that had been in place since 1992. While the 2019 Act was a step in the right direction, much work remains to be done, and especially in the online sphere.
Nonetheless, Bach’s sentencing last September was “an important way to show how serious Thailand is about countering wildlife crime” and “sends a clear message to wildlife criminal kingpins and networks that things have changed in the country and the region, and that wildlife trafficking can no longer be carried out with impunity, just because a well-connected individual threatens or bribes the right people.”
In recent months, Thai officials have turned their attention to investigating the disappearance of hundreds of rhesus macaques from Tham Pha Mak Ho, a temple in Northeast Thailand. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, when new limitations were placed on international trades supplying monkeys used in laboratories, the rate of smuggling macaques rose sharply. This February, police also found 47 macaques in the process of being smuggled overseas for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
Having recognized how much damage deforestation and the illegal trade of endangered species has created for their biodiversity, many locals across Thailand are spearheading new nature conservation efforts. On World Wildlife Day, which took place on March 3, Thailand held its fifth annual World Wildlife Day International Youth Art Contest to raise awareness. This year’s winner was Poonyisa Sodsai, a 13-year-old Thai girl whose colorful illustration was created to honor Thailand’s bird of love.
So far, new international policies have been adopted to increase the pressure on some of the worst offending ivory traders, including Thailand, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China, who are also known as the “gang of eight.”
As the consequences of illicit wildlife trades, including “population depletion trends, food chain effects, keystone species concerns, disease and pathogen risks,” and “zoonotic disease” become increasingly clearer, advocacy groups have taken new legal action to give “a voice in court to the ‘victim’ species suffering at the hands of the illegal wildlife trade.”
In one creative measure to enforce these new policies, crime-fighting dogs trained by the British police force have been sent to Thailand to help stop the trade in pangolins, which the World Wildlife Fund considers “one of the animals most threatened by trafficking.” Like these British dogs put to work in Thailand, we as global citizens must work together to protect our common planet.
Article by Fatima Abuzar.
Editing by Anrike Visser.
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