Southeast Asia Takes Aim at Illegal Wildlife Trade
BANGKOK Southeast Asia announced its first coordinated effort against the multibillion dollar illegal wildlife trade on Monday, drawing praise from conservationists, despite giving no timetable for the plan.
The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) pledged to share intelligence, review weak laws, and tighten borders in a region that accounts for one-quarter of the global illegal trade in animals and plants.
"There has been virtually no cross-border law enforcement cooperation going on. So this is a big moment," said Steve Galster, director of WildAid Thailand, which had called for a "wildlife Interpol" for the region. "Once they start doing joint operations and put pressure on these traffickers, they are going to catch some of them."
Thai Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti said the ASEAN action plan would promote "closer engagement among neighbors to combat illegal trade, which is a problem that extends well beyond our borders and jurisdictions."
The announcement was made at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok, where Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra offered to host a summit on a regional law enforcement network next year.
Asia is an international hotspot for the illegal trade in endangered plants and animals, driven mostly by China, where demand from restaurants, medicine shops, and private collectors has surged along with the nation's wealth.
Conservationists say Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand are used by smugglers to transport everything from rhino horns and tiger skins to rare snakes, fresh water turtles, and tropical wood.
The profits are huge. One Asian rhino horn can bring a poacher up to US$500 and command between $37,000 and $50,000 from its end buyers. Tiger skins can sell for $15,000. Ramin, a timber used for snooker and pool cues and threatened by illegal logging, can vary from $600 to $1,200 per cubic meter.
Some traffickers are linked to organized crime. Others use the Internet to sell their goods. Few are caught, and if they are arrested, jail terms are rare.
The ASEAN initiative calls for "bilateral and multilateral arrangements between enforcement agencies" and to "strengthen enforcement efforts along key border regions." It also recognized the need to review legislation to better enforce CITES.
But there was no timetable for implementing the plan. Indonesia, in charge of driving the initiative within ASEAN, said it would be launched in the near future.
Conservationists applauded the ministers for showing the political will to tackle the problem, but they want action soon.
"Making CITES work to its optimum potential as a conservation tool depends on action at the national level," said James Compton, Southeast Asian director for Traffic, a group that monitors wildlife trade.