A new report has highlighted the maritime border zone between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines as a hotbed for the illegal wildlife trade, and called for urgent intergovernmental action to protect this biodiversity hotspot at the apex of the Coral Triangle.
Wildlife trade monitoring nonprofit TRAFFIC documented and analyzed the seizure of more than 25,000 live animals and more than 120,000 metric tons of wildlife, parts and plants from the illegal trade between June 2003 and September 2021 in the Sulu-Celebes seas region.
“The sheer volume of hundreds of marine and terrestrial species poached and trafficked through this lesser-known seas is a wake-up call for action before it’s too late,” report co-author Serene Chng, senior program officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
The communities that live alongside these seas have long had strong transboundary relationships and connections due to their shared cultures and engagement in local trade, often involving illegal, unreported and untaxed goods.
TRAFFIC found the illegal wildlife trade through the Sulu and Celebes seas is primarily between the three Southeast Asian countries, rather than destined for other countries — though the arrests of some Chinese and Vietnamese nationals suggests some involvement by international syndicates.
Marine wildlife targeted
TRAFFIC logged 452 confiscations of live animals and wildlife parts in the region, with the Philippines accounting for 239 (53%), Malaysia 125 (28%) and Indonesia 88 (19%) of the cases. The incidents involved a diverse range of terrestrial and marine wildlife, with animals accounting for 89% of cases and plants the remaining 11%.
Out of 119 incidents resulting in arrests, only 26 (6% of total incidents) led to documented convictions. However, TRAFFIC said the data on convictions were limited by gaps in reporting and recording.
“Trade and enforcement levels constantly fluctuate and so many factors influence that,” said TRAFFIC Southeast Asia director Kanitha Krishnasamy. “But what the figures show is that the pressure on species is a constant.”
The report found that species including marine turtles, giant clams, seahorses, sharks and rays — some threatened with extinction and banned from trade — are specifically targeted and frequently seized in large quantities, reflecting the alarming frequency of these illicit activities.
Marine turtle smuggling is a major issue in the Sulu-Celebes seas region, accounting for 28% of all seizures, with much of this illicit trade conducted through in-person transactions rather than open online platforms. Marine turtle eggs constituted 95% of the seized marine turtle items, predominantly trafficked between the southern Philippines and Sabah, Malaysia, with Malaysia responsible for nearly 80% of the seizures.
The eggs, believed to originate mainly from the Philippines’ Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, are destined for the bustling consumer market in Sabah, with the city of Sandakan identified as the main entry point for their illegal transport.
A total of 409 shark and ray individuals, nearly 2.3 metric tons of their meat, and almost 29,000 shark products were seized in 12 incidents, primarily in the Philippines, with one seizure reported in Malaysia. Except for two live pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus) and three whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) — both endangered species whose trade is highly restricted — all the seized sharks and rays were dead individuals.
The study also showed that land animals were not exempt from the clutches of smugglers, with frequent and significant seizures observed. For instance, parrots were often seized in Bitung on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, with many originating from eastern regions of the country like Papua and Maluku. Seizure reports indicate Bitung is a potential consolidation point for selling these birds within Indonesia or to the Philippines.
Online trade continues
The illegal wildlife trade persists and thrives across online shopping platforms such as Lazada and Shopee, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia. After analyzing more than 600 posts related to sharks and rays, marine turtles and pangolins, TRAFFIC found that rays were the most commonly offered taxa for sale online in the region.
A notable instance of online trade involved the sale of sharks and rays through livestreaming of Indonesian fish markets on Facebook. The videos showcased various species and their prices, with viewers engaging by commenting, asking questions, and bargaining prices. In Gorontalo, Sulawesi, an instance of stockpiling was observed, wherein online traders were found purchasing significant quantities of shark fins. Online trade of marine turtles was documented only in Indonesia, mainly in the form of carved bracelets and rings made from turtle shells.
With the rise of online trade on social media and shopping platforms, TRAFFIC has called for increased attention from law enforcement agencies and tech companies. It also urged the governments of the three countries to employ existing traceability tools to combat wildlife trafficking, and to enhance regulations particularly concerning the legal trade of sharks and rays, which both play vital ecological roles within their respective food webs.
Theresa Mundita Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), pointed to findings of the February 2020 Red List Index for Southeast Asia, which revealed a steady increase in the rate of biodiversity loss in the region. She said the region faces a high risk of wild vertebrate extinction, especially among species targeted in the illegal trade, further exacerbated by the prevalence of online commerce.
“While social media is being used in these illegal activities, it can also be the solution to such a worsening problem,” Lim told Mongabay. “Everyone can contribute to curbing such illegal transactions by reporting accounts that engage in illicit trade.”
A call for cooperation
Given the interconnected nature of the illegal wildlife trade and the low number of successful convictions, the TRAFFIC report emphasizes the importance of a holistic, regional approach to finding solutions, including increased interagency and transboundary cooperation.
“At least 45 different agencies from these three countries made arrests and seizures, with over a quarter of incidents involving collaboration between multiple agencies within a country,” Chng said. “We’re keen to see and support more of these joint efforts at the regional level between countries.”
Armstrong, O. H., Wong, R., Lorenzo, A., Sidik, A., Sant, G., & Chng, S. (2023). Illegal wildlife trade: Baseline for monitoring and law enforcement in the Sulu-Celebes Seas. TRAFFIC. Retrieved from https://www.traffic.org/publications/reports/iwt-in-sulu-celebes-seas-2023/
Bornatowski, H., Navia, A. F., Braga, R. R., Abilhoa, V., & Corrêa, M. F. (2014). Ecological importance of sharks and rays in a structural foodweb analysis in southern Brazil. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 71(7), 1586-1592. doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsu025
This article by Keith Anthony S. Fabro was first published by Mongabay.com on 7 June 2023. Lead Image: A green sea turtle. Marine turtle smuggling is a major issue in the Sulu-Celebes seas region, accounting for 28% of all seizures. Image by Amanda Cotton / The Ocean Agency.
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