Casque of a Critically Endangered Helmeted Hornbill in a shop in Vientiane, Lao PDR. Credit: TRAFFIC/ Kanitha Krishnasamy

Illegal wildlife trade in the Lower Mekong remains unabated despite Covid-19 restrictions

Global anti-wildlife trade advocacy organisation, TRAFFIC, has issued an urgent call for concerned authorities in the region to do more to suppress the activity, which it said still remains unabated despite a series of restrictions imposed in several places

Despite decades of scrutiny and monitoring, enforcement and policy interventions, and even Covid-19 restrictions in place in the region, illegal and unregulated markets selling wildlife, widely perceived as also contributing to newly emerging infectious outbreaks including Covid-19, continue to operate, as evidenced by survey results in five Mekong countries during the past two years by TRAFFIC, the global wildlife trade monitoring and policy making advocacy organisation. 

Throughout 2019 to 2020, close to 78,000 illegal wildlife parts and products were found for sale in more than 1,000 outlets in select towns and cities in the five countries, TRAFFIC said.

Parts and products from a wide array of species were found during the surveys, including bears, big cats, helmeted hornbill, pangolin, rhinoceros and serow, but elephant ivory was most prominent.  

Multiple types of products were also found to have been derived from individual species. For instance, pangolins scales were found raw and ground for medicinal use, as well as being carved into jewellery or sold as talismans, the organisation noted.

Such discoveries have been recorded in the organisation’s new video, which depict those thousands of illegal wildlife parts and products. This, TRAFFIC said, underscores the region’s continuing struggle to address wildlife crime and the need to ramp up anti-trafficking efforts. 

The Lower Mekong region, comprising Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam, has long been recognised as a hotbed for illegal wildlife trade.

Credit: TRAFFIC
Credit: TRAFFIC

“The variety and prevalence of illegal wildlife trade in several locations emphasised that the circumstances facilitating illegal trade have not only remained but, in some cases, proliferated,” said TRAFFIC’s Senior Program Officer Agkillah Maniam. 

Among these are the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) established in many of the Lower Mekong countries to encourage increased trade and investment, jobs, and an overall socio-economic improvement of countries, TRAFFIC revealed.

These SEZs, the organisation pointed, have expanded over the years and become hotspots for the illegal wildlife trade. Among these are Boten and Bokeo in Lao PDR, and Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Covid-19 travel restrictions impacted trade activity, with surveys in late 2020 showing products like ivory still openly available, but in smaller volumes. 

In December 2020, Vietnamese authorities seized 93 kilograms of African rhino horns from a warehouse near the International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, reinforcing that the pandemic has not been a deterrent against wildlife crime and raising questions on stocks and future supply into the market, the organisation pointed.

“It would be naïve to think that the pandemic alone will dampen wildlife crime in the long term. So, monitoring and investigations must continue. Ground-truthing is critical to accurately understand how traffickers, traders and consumers respond and adapt to changes”, said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. 

Illegal trade in imported and local wildlife parts, products, live animals in shops as well as local markets continues to thrive in the region despite Covid-19. (Clockwise: Bear cubs for sale in Phongsaly, Lao PDR. (TRAFFIC/ Lalita Gomez), Bear Bile medicine and elephant skin powder for sale in Bokeo, Lao PDR, and carved ivory pendants for sale in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. (TRAFFIC/ Kanitha Krishnasamy), Juvenile Slow Loris sold as a pet in a highway market in Oudomxay/Luang Namtha in Lao PDR. TRAFFIC/ Agkillah Maniam))

Ms. Kanitha said there’s also a need for strengthening collaboration and public commitment from all governments in the region. The illicit wildlife trade problem here, she pointed, is not something countries can tackle on their own. 

The surveys and video are the latest outputs in TRAFFIC’s 30 years of conducting research and investigations into markets in this region. A series of more detailed analysis on ivory trade and trade in specific locations in the Lower Mekong will follow in the coming months, the organisation revealed.

The also highlights some efforts to address the region’s challenges, including building the capacity of enforcement officers in wildlife crime investigations, providing tools to boost the identification and detection of illegally traded wildlife in markets, and tackling the demand for wildlife parts and products.  

However, given that the trade endures and even thrives, it advocates continued investigations into the illegal wildlife trade and a firmer and sharper response to the complicated problems in this area.

Credit: TRAFFIC