Fresh bid to tackle il­le­gal wildlife trade

MEET­ING HEARS THAT OF­FI­CIALS ARE LOS­ING THE BAT­TLE AGAINST OR­GAN­ISED CRIM­I­NALS

The Nation - - THAILAND - PIYAPORN WONGRUANG

AS TRANSNA­TIONAL wildlife traf­fick­ing con­tin­ues un­abated in South­east Asia, wildlife au­thor­i­ties and ad­vo­cates are step­ping up their ef­forts to un­der­stand the trends in this ac­tiv­ity and stem the il­le­gal trade.

With na­tions in this re­gion be­ing both tran­sit and des­ti­na­tion points, of­fi­cials are look­ing at ways to re­duce the de­mand for wild an­i­mal prod­ucts on the ground and to im­prove po­lit­i­cal and ju­di­cial measures to pros­e­cute traf­fick­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to USAID Wildlife Asia, which jointly or­gan­ised the 4th Re­gional Dialogue on Com­bat­ing Traf­fick­ing of Wild Fauna and Flora along with sev­eral other con­ser­va­tion agen­cies in Bangkok last week, it is clear that wildlife traf­fick­ing is a so­phis­ti­cated en­ter­prise or­gan­ised by crime syn­di­cates.

As such, it needs to be tack­led through in­no­va­tions in law en­force­ment and bet­ter govern­ment pol­icy.

Sal Amato, the agency’s law en­force­ment spe­cial­ist with more than three decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, said the traf­fick­ers were of­ten one step ahead of the of­fi­cials.

“There is one over­rid­ing prin­ci­ple that drives the busi­ness – it’s of huge value with low risk. And that’s why we are los­ing the bat­tle, rapidly.”

Ac­cord­ing to the agency, four key species are its fo­cus in this re­gion. Ele­phant ivory, rhino horns, tiger parts and pan­golin prod­ucts are among the top items in the il­le­gal wildlife trade world­wide. And the trade in th­ese prod­ucts is par­tic­u­larly ram­pant in South­east Asia and China, which are both ma­jor sources of de­mand and tran­sit points.

On av­er­age, the world­wide trade is worth around $20 bil­lion (Bt662 bil­lion) an­nu­ally, with sev­eral cases be­ing un­der­re­ported. Be­cause it in­volves crim­i­nal syn­di­cates, the ac­tiv­ity is viewed as un­der­min­ing the rule of law and en­cour­ag­ing cor­rup­tion and money laun­der­ing. It is there­fore cited as a crit­i­cal se­cu­rity is­sue.

Dr Robert Mather, chief of party at USAID Wildlife Asia, and other wildlife spe­cial­ists at the event pointed to the un­abated trend of wildlife traf­fick­ing, es­pe­cially from Africa to this re­gion.

First to ar­rive here were parts of two prime African species – rhinos and ele­phants.

Jeremy Swan­son, a law en­force­ment spe­cial­ist from USAID in Tan­za­nia, said the pop­u­la­tion of African ele­phants had been de­clin­ing rapidly due to poach­ing since 2009 or so, with Tan­za­nia see­ing more than 60 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion lost ex­clu­sively for ivory. The killings reached a peak in 2012 or 2013, and the rate has dropped slightly, partly due to more strin­gent law en­force­ment, he said.

His sta­tis­tics are in line with those from the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture ( IUCN), which shows that more than 41 tonnes of ivory was seized in 2013, the high­est so far this decade. Of an es­ti­mated 500,000 an­i­mals in the wild in 2012, around 20,000 were poached, and the IUCN noted that the poach­ing and trade in ivory could wipe out up to one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion within 10 years if it is al­lowed to con­tinue.

The sad­der story is of the re­gion’s black rhinos. About 96 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion dropped dur­ing the years 1970-1992, with the num­ber dip­ping to as low as 2,400. The good news is that the pop­u­la­tion has now risen to around 4,800, partly due to re­newed strin­gent pro­tec­tion measures and relocation pro­grammes, the agency noted.

Mather, who has been work­ing on wildlife con­ser­va­tion in this re­gion for decades, has ob­served the lat­est trend of traf­fick­ing of wild an­i­mals from Africa to this re­gion in­volves pan­golins. He said pan­golins are among the most- traded species world­wide. As many as 1.1 mil­lion were found be­ing traf­ficked be­tween 2006 and 2015 glob­ally.

How­ever, fewer than 10 per cent of the smug­glers ended up be­ing pros­e­cuted and sen­tenced, prompt­ing Mather to point to flaws in the pro­cesses that need to be fixed.

Ac­cord­ing to stud­ies by his agency, the de­mand is a re­sult of grow­ing con­sump­tion of th­ese species’ parts for pur­poses rang­ing from med­i­ca­tions to ex­pen­sive tro­phies.

Mather said traf­fick­ing- re­duc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties needed to shift from just aware­ness-rais­ing to en­cour­ag­ing be­hav­iour change among those who trade in wildlife. Law en­force­ment and pol­icy changes are equally crit­i­cal, he said.

Mather said there is a rel­a­tively low num­ber of pros­e­cu­tions and sen­tenc­ing of wrong­do­ers in wildlife traf­fick­ing cases in this re­gion, and con­cerned par­ties have to do more to make law en­force­ment more ef­fec­tive.

“We see a lot of ar­rests but th­ese hardly ever lead to suc­cess­ful pros­e­cu­tions. We re­ally need to move for­ward to the sen­tenc­ing,” pointed Mather.

Amato said fac­tors pre­vent­ing more pros­e­cu­tions in­cluded in­ad­e­quate fi­nan­cial and hu­man re­sources, lack of ad­e­quate laws, in­ad­e­quate equip­ment and train­ing, low aware­ness among the ju­di­ciary, lack of po­lit­i­cal will and, last but not least, cor­rup­tion.

“It’s a ques­tion whether it’s in­ept or cor­rupt,” he said.

In an at­tempt to address the is­sue, wildlife spe­cial­ists agreed on more co­op­er­a­tion and timely in­for­ma­tion shar­ing via new tech­nol­ogy, as well as work at the ju­di­cial and po­lit­i­cal lev­els. Thai­land, the ex­perts said, is pro­gress­ing with work at the Supreme Court on the ju­di­cial pro­cesses, while the Asean In­ter­par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly has started to look at the is­sue of en­force­ment against traf­fick­ing.

“The big ques­tion re­mains: why th­ese cases of­ten dis­ap­pear, and do not con­tinue to the end in sen­tenc­ing,” Mather said.

ON AV­ER­AGE, THE WORLD­WIDE TRADE IS WORTH AROUND $20 BIL­LION (BT662 BIL­LION) AN­NU­ALLY, WITH SEV­ERAL CASES BE­ING UN­DER­RE­PORTED. BE­CAUSE IT IN­VOLVES CRIM­I­NAL SYN­DI­CATES, THE AC­TIV­ITY IS VIEWED AS UN­DER­MIN­ING THE RULE OF LAW AND EN­COUR­AG­ING COR­RUP­TION AND MONEY LAUN­DER­ING.

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