Confiscated pangolins at Ninh Binh, Vietnam (Photo:Leanne Clark, Asian Pangolin Conservation Program)
More on habitat loss here
More on pollution, invasive-species and disturbance here
Animals are sought by trade for several end uses. Pelts have been traded for centuries, and Europe was once a major market for some Asian species, such as spotted/striped cats, to make into luxury clothing. Demand for pelts has driven massive recent declines of otters across much of mainland South-east Asia, and some large reptiles’ skins are heavily traded but, overall, rather few animals are primarily traded in the region for skins. Live captives of some animals are sold into the pet trade, notably various reptiles and fish. Very large, dangerous, animals are traded heavily as trophies, such as wild cattle heads or horns. Certain species are highly sought by medicine factories, which use extracts of these animals in their pills and potions. But the highest volume of animals moving internationally through South-east Asia is probably for the ‘wildlife meat’ trade. This is not simply for consumption of sufficient calories, or even protein; the wildness is felt to confer strength upon the eater. Thus, the trade has elements of medicinal use.
Many sorts of mammal and reptile are particularly favoured in this ‘tonic’ trade; birds are much less in demand, although some species are perceived as powerful. Prices differ between species, with animals such as turtles and pangolins as or more valuable per unit weight as the well-known tigers and bears. The total volume of trade has greatly risen in the last three decades and during that time the relative popularity of species has changed somewhat. This is not so much through fashion, but is a necessity driven by the massive rapid depletion of species; as some become so rare as to be unavailable to most consumers, other species take their place. For example, in the early 1990s, porcupines were of little interest to the high-value, long-distance trade; now, they are among the most sought animals. Similarly, covert surveys of reptile markets in southern China have observed a shift in species as the years pass: the source countries of the species are becoming ever more distant from the markets, as the closer areas are effectively hunted out.
Laos night market (Photo: Dawn Starin)
The urban populations of South-east and East Asia are probably no more desirous of wildlife products than are the local rural populations; they simply have the financial means to realize their wishes. In some other parts of the world, such as large parts of Africa, wildlife meat is seen as poor-man’s food, and is sold more cheaply in markets than is the meat of domestic animals. The opposite is true in South-east and East Asia. Even in the less affluent parts of this region, field teams who are given abundant food will spend a high proportion of their wages on wild meat, even of the same species (e.g. freely available farmed chicken meat is ignored if wild Red Junglefowl meat can be purchased). In mainland South-east Asia, the people who eat wildlife meat regularly are the more affluent
in their communities; and the people who act as middlemen in the rural areas are, similarly, well-off relative to their neighbours (and well connected to the various enforcement systems). Full-time hunters are also well-off and well-connected, but a significant proportion of the animals in trade originates from opportunistic finds by rural people of any economic class. In sum, although in a very few areas of South-east Asia hunting is still primarily for local subsistence by the economically marginalised, in nearly all the region the hunting and trading is carried on by people significantly more wealthy than their peers.
More on the ‘affluence-factor’ here
Impacts of overharvesting
This wildlife trade demand has particularly damaging effects on wildlife across South-east Asia for several reasons:
- The main markets are relatively close geographically, and (partly because of this) have strong ties within the general economy. Rather than South-east Asia itself, China is probably the chief stimulus of trade-driven hunting. This not to say that most animals necessarily go to China, but that a huge amount of hunting that occurs is hoping for the big-value species for export and along the way collects many individuals of the intermediate- and low-value species which may be traded domestically or even used locally. Moreover, making comparisons among countries needs care because China, with well over a thousand million people, has concomitantly huge demands even if per capita behaviour is the same as in other countries.
- Average human population density is much higher in South-east Asia than in some other parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, and so remote wilderness areas are correspondingly smaller. Very few parts of South-east Asia are now more than a few days’ walk from the nearest permanent village, road-head or navigable river. This is problematic because larger wilderness areas allow greater resilience to any given level of hunting than do smaller areas, all other factors being equal.
- Political support for wildlife conservation in South-east Asia is uneven and in some places remains low. A recent analysis of global Tiger conservation found that the largest financial supporter, by far, of in-situ activities was the Government of India. There is no comparable situation for any large species in South-east Asia. As or more serious than limited budgets is the tendency for major land-use decisions to choose short-term economic gain over long-term sustainable development; the prioritization within long-term development of aspects other than biodiversity conservation; and the low drive to root out corruption and inefficiency in relation to wildlife crime enforcement. The latter has given rise to the well-known phrase ‘paper parks’, referring to protected areas that are all clear on paper, but in reality are barely distinguishable from the surrounding landscape. In some areas, the ‘paper …’ tag applies equally well to wildlife protection laws, policy guidelines (e.g. for environmental impact assessment) and almost any other tool for conservation.
- The endemic human belief that ‘enough is never enough’. Some animals are now so depleted and so sought in the international wildlife markets that they are worth hundreds of dollars to the finder (even though s/he usually receives only a derisory percentage of the final sale price). If someone finds such an animal, the only deterrents to taking it are morality and fear of the consequences. Factor 3 means that in most situations harvesters can operate with impunity, leaving personal morality as the only check.
These factors act in combination. Many villagers, who comprise most of the harvesters of wildlife in the region, may feel that it is undesirable to deplete their forests of so many animals so fast, but feel powerless to do anything about it. If one reins in one’s own collecting activities through concerns for the future, the wildlife foregone is likely to be taken by someone else ( a form of tragedy of the commons); and in any case the wildlife habitat may, even though a protected area, be, through some shady agreement, next year given out as a huge concession for, say, a rubber plantation; and so the wildlife in question will disappear anyway! Few people in such circumstances will voluntarily forego short-term benefits, no matter how strong their principles and concerns about the future.