Home People & Planet COVID and its impacts on the illegal wildlife trade

COVID and its impacts on the illegal wildlife trade

Andrew Hung
There seems to be a slowdown in illegal wildlife trade, but is it a blip or something more sustained?
Research Associate at StoneBench
Staff at a government-run waste management facility outside Seremban, Malaysia arrange seized ivory tusks before destroying them

According to a 2016 UN estimate, the global illegal wildlife trade generates between $7 billion to $23 billion annually. The trade is supported by a vast network of poachers, traffickers and organised criminals that span continents.

However, due to the pandemic-induced travel restrictions, movement of goods and tightened border controls, trade in wildlife has been affected as much as any other industry.

A recent report by USAID finds that illegal trade of pangolin, tiger, elephant and rhino parts declined in 2020 compared with 2019. Only 9,765 kg of pangolin products were seized in 2020, down strikingly from 155,795 kg in 2019. Similar levels of reduction in seized tiger, elephant and rhino products were also noticed in 2020.

This fall in wildlife trade is also due to the weakened demand for wildlife products as a result of the pandemic. A recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that “nearly 30% of people surveyed across China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States say they have consumed less or stopped consuming wildlife altogether because of the global health crisis.”

A shift to online

The pandemic succeeded where years of effort by international agencies and government task forces failed. But it is too soon to celebrate as illegal wildlife traders are increasingly shifting online, especially on the dark web.

This trend has been in the making for a while and COVID-19 further accelerated it. Illegal traders are aware of the benefits of going online – hidden identity and encrypted/undetected transactions make it much easier for sellers and buyers to strike deals.

Law enforcement face an uphill task in taking down online criminals. This helplessness is due to lack of funds and resources in pushing illegal wildlife trade up their priority list. Another challenge is the weak cyber regulation sphere allowing illegal traders to continue business as usual, especially on mainstream social media platforms, where one can easily find many traders posing with fake IDs claiming to sell pure and original wildlife products.

A shift to stockpiling

In addition to shifting online, traders have also shifted to stockpiling in anticipation of increased demand for wildlife parts and products post-COVID. Investigations conducted by the Environmental Investigations Agency and the Wildlife Justice Commission found that between January and March 2020, an estimated 22 tonnes of pangolin scales are hidden in Vietnam, stockpiled, ready to be shipped once border measures loosen.

Similarly, between January 2020 to April 2021, Philippine National Police-Maritime Group confiscated around 621 metric tonnes of giant clam shells in nine operations across the country. And surprisingly, these seizures were conducted when the country was amid its strictest phase of lockdown.

Meanwhile, in April 2020, authorities were successful in seizing more than 6 metric tonnes of African pangolin scales in Port Klang of Malaysia, which also turned out to be the biggest confiscation of pangolin parts in Southeast Asia last year.

Illegal wildlife trade thrives owing to a strong network that supports strong demand. All efforts to stop the trade may amount to nothing if consumers are not made aware and the demand for wildlife products are not lowered.

A specific form of ruthlessness has also been witnessed among poachers. In January 2020, poachers in Malaysia gunned down a pygmy elephant, dismembered it, without taking its tusks, but leaving it without a trunk and half of its skin, showing complete disregard for increased enforcement activities in the area.

Illegal wildlife traders are also a step ahead of law enforcement agencies, devising ways to evade mobility restrictions amid the pandemic.

Nipping the menace

Wildlife trade cannot go on. Illegal wildlife fuels nefarious global activities such as money laundering and terrorist financing. A clear historical example is that of Nepal’s civil war from 1996-2006, where the collection and international trade in yarchagumba [a form of caterpillar fungus] formed a critical element of the Maoist insurgency’s fundraising. This is but one example. There are many others.

A recent OECD brief points to the illegal wildlife trade as one of the possible links to the COVID-19 disease.

In fact, an article peer reviewed and published by Nature “suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission.” This view also emerged prominently in the recent WWF survey, which found that 85% of the surveyed respondents from countries such as China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the US would support their government’s efforts in closing high-risk markets selling wildlife products.

What needs changing?

The private sector acknowledged the increasing impacts of wildlife trade on human health, the global economy and biodiversity and in 2018 joined hands to form a coalition to end wildlife trafficking online. The coalition began with 21 tech companies including tech giants such as Facebook, Instagram, Google, Tiktok and Pinterest and by March 2020 boasts of the world’s 34 large tech companies, with 9+ billion users, actively working towards removing or blocking more than 3 million endangered listings from their platforms.

Governments, multilaterals and international agencies are equally putting all their might to contain illegal wildlife trafficking. Some of the more recent announcements came from China where its government announced a broad ban on the sale and consumption of wild animals. Additionally, the country has also announced to add a record number of 500 species to their protected wild animals list. This is the first time that any animal has been added to the list in 32 years. Similarly, the Prime Minister of Vietnam took out a new directive in July 2020 banning the sale and trade of wild animals in addition to shuttering of wild animal markets.

The pandemic succeeded where years of effort by international agencies and government task forces failed. But it is too soon to celebrate as illegal wildlife traders are increasingly shifting online.

Meanwhile international agencies such as WWF and TRAFFIC have come together to form Wildlife Crime Initiative, with a goal of reducing the impact of wildlife crime (poaching, trafficking and demand for illegal products) on conservation targets by 50%.

But there still lies a wide gap in adequate wildlife legislation, policies and enforcement on a global scale. OECD recommends three areas to right these wrongs:

  • Increase the effectiveness of existing penalties and sanctions on wildlife conservation
  • Enhance the screening of small shipments for illegal products, which has seen a sharp spike
  • Eliminate all criminal activities related to illegal trade that are carried out in free trade zones

Illegal wildlife trade thrives owing to a strong network that supports strong demand. To beat it, a more holistic approach is required with strong cooperation between law enforcement and wildlife conservation authorities.

Countries should also look to develop frameworks in engaging with financial intelligence units to trace the flow of money related to wildlife crime, both domestically and internationally. However, all of this may amount to nothing if people (consumers) are not made aware and the demand for wildlife products are not lowered.

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Andrew Hung
Research Associate at StoneBench

Andrew assists with and manages research on projects at StoneBench. Prior to joining StoneBench, Andrew worked in the information technology sector, managing different geographic area accounts for a global IT major; and helped in the business development of emerging technologies.

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