Cooperating To Combat The Asian Wild Animal Trade
China is one of the largest global markets for wild animal products, both legal and illegal. In the last two decades, this market has expanded significantly as a result of China’s economic boom, increasing consumer affluence, and traditionally utilitarian culture. China has reduced its own wild animal diversity and now relies largely on trade from other countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia (SEA), to acquire wild animal products. Specifically, 79% of wild animal products imported to China from SEA between 1997-2016 originated from three countries: Indonesia, Laos, and Malaysia.
Southeast Asia supports a rich variety of wild animals. It also has close economic ties with China. As such, it has long been implicated as both a source and transit hub for China’s legal and illegal wild animal trade. For example, between 1997-2016, around 3.8 million live mammals, amphibians, birds, fishes, and reptiles listed by CITES were imported to China from SEA. This trade feeds five key industries: fashion, traditional Chinese medicine, food, companion animals and ornaments, and musical instruments. Live animals and skins dominate the business. What’s more, nearly half of the illegal species imported into China are also present in the legal market. This allows the laundering of illegal animals into the legal supply. Illegal trafficking threatens the region’s biodiversity and poses a danger to human health and collective security.
Efforts to combat illicit commerce require coordination between regulatory and enforcement agencies. In China and SEA, responsibilities for overseeing the wild animal trade are scattered across various agencies and ministries. All SEA countries regulate the killing or hunting, possessing, transporting, importing, and exporting of endangered species. Likewise, China’s national law for wild animal protection limits the hunting, catching, sale, and purchase of protected animals and their products. However, there are many exemptions that allow for the use of protected species in scientific research, captive breeding, heritage conservation, and other special purposes. China’s emphasis on economic growth as an overriding goal blunts the potential impact of conservation laws, as it positions wild animals as a profitable resource instead of a group to be protected.
Historically, communication and coordination between China and SEA has been limited. However, since 2002, cooperation on environmental issues has expanded and become more formalized. China has entered into agreements with the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to combat transnational crime, including wild animal trafficking. China has also been supporting regional forums, workshops, and training sessions on the wild animal trade in collaboration with SEA. At these events, officials discuss topics such as reducing demand, raising public awareness, and sharing information to fight the wild animal trade. Finally, Chinese officials have stepped up transnational law enforcement operations aimed at dismantling criminal syndicates. For example, between 2007-2016, the Chinese forest police apprehended 3.9 million environmental and wild offenders while confiscating 57.6 million individual animals. But while all of this is good news, the authors note that much work remains to be done on this issue. More collaboration is especially needed when it comes to apprehending SEA criminal groups and individuals working outside of China but selling goods to Chinese consumers.
The best solution lies in strengthening legal cooperation to combat illegal trafficking. This can be done using international legal tools (e.g., legal frameworks and principles) to disrupt and destroy the cross-border criminal networks that trade protected wild animals. One example is the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which addresses transnational crimes committed by organized criminal groups and would apply to many of the wild animal crimes happening in China and SEA. In addition, China needs to proactively share information with SEA countries. Systems already exist to promote communication between customs authorities, and China should use these systems, along with other secure tools, to share knowledge with frontline workers battling the wild animal trade. The governments in China and SEA should also harmonize their domestic criminal laws regarding illegal wild animal activities. There needs to be agreement on the definition of an organized criminal group and penalties for serious environmental crimes. And finally, China, individual SEA countries, and ASEAN as a whole must develop and strengthen their agreements for extraditing people charged with wild animal trafficking.
As this paper makes clear, there is still a long way to go in the fight against the illegal wild animal trade in Asia. With growing attention being paid to wild animal crimes in China and SEA, advocates can join forces with those already working on these issues to make a bigger difference. As the harms associated with wild animal trafficking become more apparent, advocates on the ground in China and SEA could use the support of international policy, enforcement, and communication experts to navigate the road ahead.