Tackling Wildlife Trafficking As It Moves Online
Campaigns to raise awareness about tigers, elephants, rhinos and pangolins were put into action in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Lao PDR and Cambodia, throughout 2019. Organisations like WildAid, Worldwide Fund for Nature, the British Embassy, USAID Wildlife Asia, and Thai Airways came together to teach citizens about the realities of the wildlife trade and the animals involved in it. Together with monitoring wildlife trafficking and enforcement by the countries involved, their hope was to reduce the exploitation of the most persecuted wild animals in the world.
Meanwhile, USAID Wildlife Asia has been working with governments to reduce illegal trafficking through strengthening law enforcement and curbing consumer demand for wildlife parts and products. Their most recent report, covering January to December 2019, focuses on pangolins, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. A five year collaboration of anti-trafficking groups from around the world, the report explores progress made in conservation laws, behaviour change campaigns, and seizures made.
Pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. They are killed for their scales, meat, and skin. These body parts are eaten for perceived health benefits, as well as being a novelty food. People believe pangolin body parts can improve blood circulation and help other medicines to work better. What’s more, the unique and rare nature of the pangolin gives them high status as a food. Their bodies are eaten as a delicacy, and even turned into wine. Men from their 30s to 50s, with a middle-to-high income, are the most likely to buy pangolin body parts.
Although pangolin trade is illegal internationally, it remains high between Africa and Asia. Ethiopia has been identified as a major player in catching and selling pangolins to Asia, with the most ending up in Vietnam. During seizures, pangolin body parts have been found in cargos of hollowed out logs, tins of mackerel, and between frozen beef. As trafficking continues, pangolins remain on the brink of extinction.
The demand in tigers, especially in Vietnam, remains high with older, lesser educated generations. Men are more likely to buy tiger bone wine, and women are more likely to buy tiger plasters. Tiger products are bought as gifts as a sign of respect. A survey found a third of people in Vietnamese cities Hanoi and Hoh Chi Minh have bought or used tiger products in the past year. Many people believe they help with joint pain and broken bones. Tiger claws and teeth are also thought to ward-off evil spirits and protect children. Tiger bones are not only used for wine, but also glue.
Tigers are both bred in big cat breeding centres and captured in the wild. Many wild tigers are smuggled from India into China and Vietnam, with some trade in tigers coming from South Africa and North Korea. The legal lion trade in South Africa is used as a way to smuggle tiger products to South East Asia. A lot of trade is done online, through platforms like Facebook and WeChat. As tiger populations are dwindling and their products are becoming more rare, people are turning to wild lion populations as a replacement.
Ivory and elephant tail hair are popular in South East Asia because they symbolise power and wealth. Ivory is expensive, therefore the main customers are high earners. Elephant products are displayed in households, worn as jewelry, even made into chopsticks for wedding gifts. There have been several campaigns urging consumers away from ivory, such as the British embassy’s online campaign in Vietnam, with the slogan “Make Vietnam Proud, Say No to Ivory.” This campaign used images of top footballers and citizens encouraging people to say “no to ivory.”
Both the African and Asian elephant populations are in decline, and there doesn’t seem to be a slow down in the ivory trade. In fact, there has been a notable increase in trade to Japan, which has the largest ivory markets in the world. Although this increase may be due to more seizures taking place in 2019, it is still worrying that there is a large amount of trade happening globally, with many countries involved in this large-scale wildlife trafficking.
Rhino horns are used to show off wealth and status, and seen to have health benefits. Horn powder is even used as a hangover cure. Horns are carved into collectables and put on display in households throughout South East Asia. South Africa and Mozambique have been picked out as main exporters of rhino horn, with organized crime groups poaching and smuggling horns to Vietnam and China. Poaching rhinos has put their populations in great danger, particularly in Africa.
This report highlights that illegal wildlife trade is high and thriving in South East Asia and beyond. Even though there has been an increase in seizures, the convictions of traffickers is low. Many wildlife criminals avoid being caught by changing smuggling routes and methods, and still more have moved to trade online, to provide anonymity, and distance themselves as players in trafficking. Online platforms allow encrypted messaging and financial transactions, and poachers are using digital currencies, which are harder to trace. When prosecutions happen, there is little evidence to place them in the crime.
Greater collaboration between countries in South East Asia is needed in law enforcement and research. The report also emphasises that educational campaigns in these countries are essential to changing consumer behaviours away from buying wildlife products. It recommends more resources in seizing illegal shipments, from sniffer dogs to scanning machines, to help build evidence against wildlife traffickers. Wild animals remain at risk from exploitation and extinction while there remains a market for their body parts and while weak law enforcement exists.