Cooperating To End Wild Animal Trafficking In Southeast Asia
In 2022, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) released a report about the state of “counter wildlife trafficking” (CWT) and the illegal wild animal trade (IWT) in Southeast Asia. The review primarily focuses on Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand, and Vietnam. It explores how these countries have worked together to enforce, investigate, and prosecute wild animal crimes, how COVID-19 has impacted CWT, and how the situation has evolved in general over the last five years.
An influential player in the region is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is a union that cooperates on political and economic issues. The U.S. sponsors the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN), which recently split into two new groups. According to the report, important steps have been taken since USAID’s last wild animal trafficking review in 2016, and there seems to be widespread support against the illegal trade. However, the overall political and economic situation in Southeast Asia has worsened since 2017.
The report notes that, in the wake of COVID-19, there is an opportunity to promote a “One Health” framework (which links the well-being of animals with human and environmental health). With many Southeast Asian countries concerned about zoonotic illnesses, advocates have an opportunity to show how protecting biodiversity is critical for safeguarding human health and preventing future zoonoses. However, according to the report, the opportunity to push this narrative is starting to fade — facing employment losses, increased poverty, and inequality, many Southeast Asian countries are now prioritizing economic recovery over health.
The report also points out that there have been a number of conferences, working groups, and other multinational efforts to support CWT in Southeast Asia. Yet, there remain notable political weaknesses in the movement to prevent IWT. Some Southeast Asian countries lack strong governance and the ability to enforce and prosecute crimes. What’s more, the report argues that some Southeast Asian governments display a lack of transparency and accountability in their CWT decision-making. Since 2017, some countries have also shifted from democratic to more authoritative political regimes, meaning it’s more difficult than ever for journalists, whistleblowers, and NGOs to reveal the truth about IWT.
One positive highlight in the past five years has been China and Vietnam’s national bans on wild animal trafficking and wild meat consumption. Nevertheless, China still shows the biggest demand for wild animal products in the region. The report notes that China’s authoritarian regime is unpredictable and has a lot of influence on Southeast Asian geopolitics. Recently, the strained political relations between China and the U.S. also make collaboration in Southeast Asia harder.
While national border shutdowns during COVID-19 were predicted to harm IWT, the trade simply shifted online. Online marketplaces have grown as a result of the pandemic, and it is more difficult to track, manage, and enforce laws in the digital sphere. The Philippines, Thailand, and parts of Malaysia do have cybercrime investigative units, but they need to be strengthened. Other Southeast Asian countries struggle to combat online trafficking. China uses machine learning to track and limit illicit digital activities, and similar strategies may benefit wild animal law enforcement in other countries. Innovations in geo-spatial monitoring technology could also prove crucial to reducing IWT.
The report concludes that future CWT efforts must have a strong emphasis on collaboration and recommends supporting Thailand’s status as the regional role model due to its exceptional CWT efforts. It is also important to make sure that One Health initiatives gain enough funding to make an impact and that they include wild animal trading in their framework. Stronger governance and cyber law enforcement are also needed to more effectively fight IWT.
Because so many Southeast Asian countries are prioritizing economic recovery, CWT efforts should be aligned with these efforts. For example, advocates can support alternative employment opportunities such as humane ecotourism to help locals shift away from trafficking. At the same time, social media campaigns and public service announcements (PSAs) could reduce the demand for wild animal products. These are just a few suggestions, and what the report makes clear is that now is the time to increase international cooperation, resource sharing, and science-driven insights to end the trafficking of wild animals in Southeast Asia and beyond.