Monitoring Southeast Asia’s Illegal Wildlife Trade

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Monitoring Southeast Asia’s Illegal Wildlife Trade

Recent seizures of ivory again shine a spotlight on poaching. Luke Hunt reports.

For the past 12-months authorities and environmentalists across Southeast Asia have been warning of a massive surge in the illegal wildlife trade, particularly elephant tusks and rhinoceros horn, fuelled largely by demand in China.

In Bangkok those fears are being realized after customs officers seized nearly half a ton of ivory hidden in wooden boxes on a flight from Kenya and valued at US$700,000. This came after another seizure worth US$2 million in New York last week with the arrest of two jewelers.

Thailand has a solid track record in looking after its own elephants but along with countries like China and Egypt is notorious as a destination for ivory from elsewhere in the world, where it is used by local carvers to make trinkets and jewelry for tourists.

More than 8,500 elephant carcasses, wildlife groups say, were found between 2002 and 2011 at 49 sites in 27 African countries.

The Chinese medicinal market is enormous and there is little or no effort on the part of Beijing to crackdown on medieval type practices that further endanger what’s left of the world’s great animals.

The region’s wildlife has also paid a heavy price for the highways and cities which have sprouted through unbridled development. Scientists are warning that up to 42 percent of Southeast Asian wildlife could disappear this century if authorities fail to curb the smuggling rackets.

This has led to cross border agreements, more recently between Laos and Vietnam, to enable wildlife authorities to share information and strengthen bilateral cooperation among law enforcement agencies.

Vietnam admits the agreements were struck because animal smuggling had become an enormous issue which is causing concern within the wider international community.

However, another report out last week criticized Laos for playing an increasingly important role in the illegal international ivory trade with foreign tourists, again Chinese, driving demand.

Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, said its report highlighted significantly higher volume of ivory items openly on sale in Laos while there were also increased seizures of African ivory heading to the communist country.

As a result it concluded that Laos was “playing a more prominent role in the international ivory trade than was previously thought, especially as a conduit for large shipments to China."

The TRAFFIC survey, conducted in August 2011, found 2,493 pieces of ivory openly on sale in Vientiane compared about one hundred ivory items seen on sale in 2002

This was despite an international ban in ivory trade under CITES, an international convention designed to protect endangered species.