Top Illegally Traded Animals in Southeast Asia

From 1970 to 2016, our world has seen an average decline of 68% in our global vertebrate species based on WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020.

In 2020, COVID-19 changed everything. Being a zoonotic disease,  it meant that the coronavirus jumped from wildlife to humans. It is a stark reminder of how our relationship with nature is so intertwined. Human activities that encroach upon wild places or exploit wildlife increase the risk of pandemics. 

It made it startlingly clear that our relationship with nature and the responsibility that comes with it is ours to protect. Pandemics and emerging diseases will continue to plague us unless we work towards the real solutions: to protect nature and empower others to do the same.

Did you know that wildlife crime, like illegal wildlife trade, is second only to habitat destruction in overall threats to species survival and the largest threat to the future of countless threatened species? 

And when the world transitioned online during lockdowns, illegal trading was already a few steps ahead. Purchasing elephant ivory, tiger teeth and other endangered wildlife products can be done with just a simple click.

Southeast Asia is a biodiversity hotspot where both legal and illegal wildlife trade is rife with activity. Wildlife crime like poaching, trafficking and consumption of wildlife continues to grow. 

As one of the world’s busiest transit hubs, its strong connectivity hence makes it an attractive route for syndicates to move products through its shores. 

Here’s a list of the top illegally traded animals in Southeast Asia: 

Pangolins

© naturepl.com / Neil Aldridge / WWF 

From 2000 – 2019, some 895,000 pangolins are estimated to have been trafficked globally from 2000 to 2019. Across Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, over 96,000 kg of pangolin scales, mostly African, were seized from 2017–2019 representing about 94% of the total amount of scales confiscated in Southeast Asia during this period. 

Being high in demand in China and Vietnam for their scales, this trade contributed to population declines of up to 90%, with the Chinese Pangolin and Sunda Pangolin categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2014.

Otters

© naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF 

These cute animals that have captured the hearts of so many are threatened by rising demand to have them as pets, for their fur and their parts.

In Southeast Asia, otter trade has been recorded in all ASEAN countries in recent times, except Brunei Darussalam and Singapore. The small-clawed otter is the most frequently encountered species exploited for the pet trade, followed by the smooth-coated otter. These two species were prohibited from any international commercial trade by CITES. 

Online trade research in Southeast Asia recorded a minimum of 560 posts over a four-month period in  2018, with a minimum of 734 and a maximum of 1,189 otters observed for sale – all of these involved juvenile animals being offered as pets in four Southeast Asian countries. 

Did you know? In Singapore, there is a collective, multi-disciplinary approach towards otter conservation, with the involvement of NParks and the Otter Working Group. With local communities, the group monitors otter populations and movement in Singapore to resolve issues and protect the species.

Asian Bears

© Martin Harvey / WWF 

The Asiatic black bear (seen above) and the sun bear are native to Southeast Asia. Despite being listed as critically endangered, both are heavily poached to supply not only illegal trade but (legal) international trade.

From 2000 to 2016, more than 3,800 bear equivalents were seized in Asia. The demand for their meat and supposed medical properties are the main reason that they are severely hunted, causing them to be threatened as a species. Bear farms are rampant across the region, where both sun bears and Asiatic black bears—mostly captured in the wild—are kept in cages while their bile is collected for traditional medicine and folk remedies. The existence of these farms continues to endanger these species daily. 

Rhinos

© @gregdutoit 

In a span of six years, 2,149 rhino horns were seized globally. Most of these horns are transported by air using carry-on or check-in luggage, with shipments leaving countries like South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania before reaching or passing through major Southeast Asian airports in Lao PDR, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and more.

Surveys done since 2016 highlight that rhino horn products continue to be openly offered for sale in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. 

Tigers

© Dr Sanjay K Shukla / WWF-International 

Today, there are less than 200 Malayan Tigers left and only around 3,900 wild tigers remain globally. We have lost over 95% of the world’s wild tiger population to rampant poaching and habitat loss. 

The illegal hunting to supply the Asian markets is their single biggest and most immediate threat. A minimum of 2,359 tiger equivalents were seized from 2000 to 2018 in 32 countries, with 60% of seizures found to be for tiger skins and commodities. 

The three countries; Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, hold an estimated 19% of the global tiger populations yet are the very countries that face unrelenting pressure from poaching and illegal trade.

Did you know? WWF has sought to raise the issue of tiger farms by directly engaging with government figures in those countries which allow such farms to operate.

Our field agents work tirelessly to save the species from extinction. You have a vital role to play too. Become a Tiger Protector today and join the fight to save our tigers. Find out more here.

Elephants

© Martin Harvey / WWF 

In the last decade, ASEAN countries have played a critical role in the global ivory trade, posing an immediate threat to the species – eight of them, with the exception of Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, have open domestic ivory markets.

With combined efforts from WWF-Singapore, the government and the public, Singapore passed an ivory ban in 2019 that will come into effect this September 1st ! While there is a cause for celebration, there is a long way to go yet. 

A monumental 393,100 kg of ivory has been seized globally from 2008–2017. Having met our goal of an ivory ban, our focus now needs to shift towards illegally traded ivory and the complete ban of any ivory products in the region completely. 

Helmeted Hornbill

© Wan Punkaunkhao / Shutterstock

The year 2012 saw an unprecedented surge in the demand for Helmeted Hornbill.  Seen as collectable trinkets by the upper class, it has pushed Southeast Asia’s largest hornbill species to Critically Endangered status in 2015. 

Known for their unique features, the trade in Helmeted Hornbill goes back in history, with its prized solid casque gifted to heads of states. 

From 2010 to 2019, more than 3,000 Helmeted Hornbill parts and products were seized in Asia, with more than 1,100 seized in Indonesia alone.

Online platforms and markets continue to offer hundreds of helmeted hornbill products illegally including Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. 

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With many of these illegal trades having set up shop online and made even more accessible, illegal wildlife trade is proving to be a bigger threat – despite already being a major player in declining global biodiversity. 

Living in the internet era has led to a rise in online markets, including social media, where such platforms cater to both opportunistic and organised buyers and sellers. Even though you may not have come across online stores selling these products, they are more prominent than you might think. 

“Illegal wildlife trade products can be found on the websites and social media platforms we use every day. Sellers and buyers often use code words or variations of the species name to avoid detection. To the untrained eye, it may also be difficult to identify species due to the diversity of species traded illegally and the multiple product forms they can take,” said Michelle. 

Tackling wildlife cybercrime is difficult due to increased anonymity and the difficulty in finding and identifying illegal items. 

The WWF Cyberspotters program offers training and the chance to help be part of the solution to stop illegal wildlife trade by being the eyes and ears on the internet (Find out more here).

Wildlife cybercrime is complex and it is the combination of multiple issues that make tackling IWT so challenging and complicated. Click here to watch our webinar on illegal wildlife trade, hosted by some of the best in the business! 

We can’t wait for you to join us in our efforts to tackle wildlife cybercrime. 

These statistics were taken from TRAFFIC. 

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