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Wildlife traffickers creeping back as pandemic restrictions ease

SINGAPORE

After a drastic reduction in wildlife trafficking during the pandemic, authorities in Southeast Asia must act swiftly to prevent smugglers from getting back in business once border controls are relaxed, consistent with a forthcoming UN report.

Traffickers’ networks were disrupted as countries shut their borders and tightened surveillance when the coronavirus struck last year.

Due to the widespread perception that the virus first emerged during a Chinese market where wildlife was sold, demand for wildlife products – like pangolin scales, bear bile, rhino horn – also dropped suddenly, as people became more conscious of zoonotic diseases.

But these changes are temporary and Southeast Asia is probably going to ascertain a long-term increase in wildlife trade and trafficking, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned in an indoor report intended for enforcement agencies within the region and reviewed by Reuters.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific, said that the pandemic has gifted authorities a chance to try to more to discourage consumers and crackdown on the traffickers’ supply lines.

But because the smugglers creep back, official seizures of illicit animal products have begun to tick up, making it important to take care of stricter border checks.

“The moment shouldn’t be lost,” Douglas told.

Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most species-rich regions, has long been a hotspot for wildlife trafficking. Rhinos are killed for his or her horns, crocodiles are farmed for his or her skin, otters and songbirds are captured as pets, rosewood is logged illegally.

According to wildlife NGO, Traffic, Southeast Asian countries “function as a source, consumer and as entrepôts for wildlife coming from within the region also because the remainder of the world”.

There is high demand for illicit animal products in countries like China, Myanmar, and Thailand, where they’re utilized in traditional medicine or consumed directly.

Some governments have seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to impose much-needed bans on the wildlife trade. because the coronavirus was raging through the planet in early 2020, China imposed an instantaneous ban on the consumption of untamed meat and a few wildlife trades, while Vietnam stepped up enforcement of its anti-trafficking laws in July that year.

Such policies are effective in significantly dampening demand, the report states.

But recent enforcement operations in China and Vietnam show traffickers have once more started moving pangolin scales across borders this year, consistent with Douglas.

Stockpiles
The hunting of wildlife and extraction of illegal animal products didn’t entirely stop during the pandemic.

Through interviews with wildlife traders and traffickers in difficult-to-police regions in countries along the Mekong – like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and China – the UNODC found evidence of wildlife products being stockpiled until prices and demand recover.

Park rangers during this and other parts of the planet also reported seeing an increase in subsistence hunting as pandemic-related economic and job losses forced people to show to forests to survive.

“Major (trafficking) networks are still expecting some restrictions to lift to resume moving larger volumes,” Douglas said.

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