Wildlife trade in Southeast Asia remains persistent despite laws and regulations in place

Growing seizures suggest only “the tip of an iceberg” of the problem, and strong political will of government and a willingness to act will break the grip of illegal trade chains, said TRAFFIC

TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade and trafficking monitoring organisation, has released the new report this week, Southeast Asia: At the heart of wildlife trade, which has painted a dire picture of persistent wildlife trade in Southeast Asia from the turn of the century despite laws and regulations in place.

This is partly because the activity has gone more complex with the help of technology and a loophole of the existing laws, the report points.

“While all Southeast Asian countries have enacted legislation to implement CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), many of the laws are inadequate and outdated to combat this problem effectively. 

“This, despite all of the ASEAN countries being Parties to CITES_most for over four decades, there remains a long way to go in the efforts to stem illegal trade and ensure compliance with the Convention,” the report says.

Serow heads at a medicine stall in Myanmar, 2015. Credit: TRAFFIC/ J. Bouhuys

The findings

The report shows statistics principally based on siezures gathered from reliable sources across 10 countries in Southeast Asia, focusing on some of the most traded groups of terrestrial animals. 

It comes when the region, which is known to be the source, consumer, and transit points of illegal wildlife trade and trafficking for years, is being challenged by the newly emerging Coronavirus or COVID-19 believed to be originated from wildlife along with China, a major consumer hub of wildlife.

Among the  findings are;

-The trafficking of an estimated 895,000 pangolins globally from 2000–2019, while over 96,000 kg of pangolin scales mostly of African species were seized from 2017–2019 across Malaysia, Singapore, and Viet Nam, representing about 94% of the total quantity of scales confiscated in Southeast Asia during this period.

-The seizure of about 225,000 kg of African Elephant Loxodonta africana ivory implicating Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam over the period 2008–2019.

-The seizure of 100,000 Pig-nosed Turtles Carettochelys insculpta in Indonesia from 2003–2019.

-Over 45,000 songbirds seized in just Sumatra and Java from 2018–2019.

-Over 6,000 Indian Star Tortoises Geochelone elegans – originating from South Asia – seized in just 10 incidents in 2017 alone, with all of them heading to either Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore.

-Over 3,800 bear equivalents seized in Asia, implicating almost all Southeast Asian countries, from 2000–2016.

“The statistics, though remarkable, comprised only seizures and was just a fraction of the true magnitude of illegal wildlife trade in the region,” the report notes.

Authors of the report said that the populations of all the species studied are known to have been impacted by the ongoing and relentless trafficking.

“Not a day goes by without a wildlife seizure taking place in Southeast Asia, and all too often in volumes that are jaw dropping. 

“Seizures are certainly commendable, but what must be eradicated are the many basic enabling factors that drive and fuel illegal trade,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.


Factors contributing to the thriving trade

The report points that the existence of organised criminal networks moving wildlife contraband, poor conviction rates, inadequate laws, and poor regulation of markets and retail outlets are all factors that continue to allow illegal trade to thrive here.

Many of the latter have continued openly selling illicit wildlife despite years of evidence detailing the magnitude of the illegal trade, the report further points.

Wildlife cybercrime as well as challenges that have persisted over time such as pervasive corruption, a lack of political will, and continued consumer demand for wildlife, were also subject to examination as additional factors contributing to the thriving trade.

Poor regulation of legal commercial wildlife trade also contributed to the region’s illicit trade problem said the authors who cited the example of wild animals being laundered as captive bred as an issue of concern.

“This assessment shows the close links between ASEAN countries and the wider world. The region is source, consumer and transit personified. Only political will at all levels of government and a willingness to act will break the grip of illegal trade chains and networks,” said Krishnasamy.

Monica Zavagli, Senior Officer for the Wildlife TRAPS Project said the body of work reinforces the position and significance of Southeast Asia’s footprint on biodiversity use and management.

“Some positive changes have taken place in just the last couple of years – this momentum must be built upon,” said Zavagli.

A pangolin seized in Malaysia, 2009. Credit: TRAFFIC/ E. John.


Priority interventions to support strategic decision-making and actions by ASEAN governments and other partners have been proposed by the report in five main areas.

-Policy: Interventions focused on ensuring that national legal frameworks and regulations are fit for purpose and that it considers trends on illegal wildlife trade over time and is improved accordingly to prevent and deter wildlife traffickers.

-Law enforcement: Interventions where frontline law enforcement authorities and the judiciary can optimise their impact for the disruption of wildlife trafficking.

-Demand reduction: Intervention aiming to influence the purchasing preferences, buyer behaviour and use, by current and intending consumer groups.

-Cross-sector co-operation: Interventions where external parties such as the private sector and professional bodies (anti-money laundering, financial investigation), civil society organisations, conservation practitioners and research institutions can assist and facilitate effective actions.

-Research gaps: Interventions to address knowledge gaps to improve anti-wildlife trafficking decisions and policy.

Read the full report@ Southeast Asia: At the heart of wildlife trade

Owls for sale in Chatuchak Market in Thailand, 2016. Credit: TRAFFIC/ M. Phassaraudomsak.