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SAIS Review 26.1 (2006) 143-145

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Wildlife Trafficking in Southeast Asia

Wildlife trade in Southeast Asia is a major development problem, draining forests of biodiversity, increasing inequality, exacerbating the problems of trafficking in general, and making good governance more difficult. Wildlife is taken from countries as diverse as Lao People's Democratic Republic, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia with an end destination of China, the largest source of demand in the region. Wild animals are used for food, decoration, and medicinal purposes in China, where eating wild meat is thought to impart various benefits such as longevity, sexual prowess, and confidence.1 Illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia is an $8—$10 billion per year industry; worldwide, wildlife trade is the second largest form of black market commerce, behind drug smuggling and before arms.2

The trade chain begins with local hunters or fishermen who have extensive knowledge of local forests or wetlands. These hunters sell to local markets or low-level dealers who pass products to higher-level dealers with international clients. Routes used by the illegal trade in wildlife are also used by smugglers of drugs, people, and weapons.3 Wildlife traffickers get across borders with forged or altered documents4 , by bribing officials, packing illegal animals in with legal ones (making detection more difficult), or drying and grinding up coveted animal parts so they can be packed in vials and stored in suitcases.

The Link to Poverty

While local poachers can make relatively good money for their illegal activity—in India, a single tiger skin can fetch $200 from a low-level dealer, or 6.5 percent of Indian per-capita income—the real profit goes to international dealers, who can go on to sell the skin for up to $10,000.5 In the process, wildlife trafficking threatens Southeast Asia's rural poor because of their reliance on natural resources and biodiversity for food, shelter and other inputs to their livelihoods.

The wildlife trade also affects development through its effects on security and rule of law. As many of the routes of wildlife trafficking are similar to those of drug, arms, or human trafficking, allowing wildlife trade to continue will exacerbate the deteriorating security situation along those routes.6 Areas without security will be hindered in their development and will pose greater challenges to the central government.

Southeast Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, but that biodiversity is threatened by wildlife trafficking—it is estimated [End Page 143] that upwards of 100,000 specimens are illegally removed from Southeast Asia each year.7 Scientists have discovered new species merely by walking through markets in Southeast Asia and China, and finding rare specimens in the wild is increasingly difficult.8 Species have gone locally extinct due to wildlife trade. Not only does this impact biodiversity and make ecosystems more fragile, but it can also contribute to the deterioration of forest functions. The forest provides the rural poor with water filtration, prevention of soil runoff, and (at low levels) an important source of protein. Without appropriate nutrition, life expectancies are lower and general health is poorer as well, again negatively affecting development.

Another challenge is capacity and human capital. Protected areas are large and often have only a few forest rangers on patrol at any one time. Sometimes customs officials are not properly trained on species identification and therefore do not know what is legal and what is illegal to trade. The capacity of forest rangers and customs officials on species identification and CITES regulations must be increased, especially given the threat that wildlife trafficking can pose to human health.

The yearly human flu strains, avian flu, HIV/AIDS, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), all have links to interactions between people and animals. Outbreaks like SARS and the avian flu can be costly, diverting funds for development or poverty alleviation to an emergency response. These outbreaks have had a devastating impact on economies of Southeast Asia. It is estimated that the 2003 SARS outbreak cost Vietnam an estimated $350 million.9 Additionally, these...