Most of the large animals of South-east Asia are threatened, at some level, with extinction. The threats vary somewhat between species, between habitats, and between different parts of the region. The threats can be divided into several, not completely independent, groups:
- Illegal trade (overharvesting of adults, young and/or eggs; of live or dead animals; by active pursuit or passive trapping)
- Habitat loss (conversion, degradation and fragmentation)
- Pollution, invasive species & disturbance
Overall, across the world, and to biodiversity in general, habitat factors are generally reckoned to be the most serious threat, followed by invasive species. By contrast, for the large (>1 kg) animals of South-east Asia that are IUCN Red-Listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered, overharvest dwarfs all other threats. Although, as with any generalisation, there are exceptions, (some of South-east Asia’s highly threatened large animals are primarily threatened by other factors), the aforementioned disparity arises for two main reasons:
- Most species are not large animals; most are invertebrates that are not even recognised by the public (or named scientifically), let alone sought for trade. Larger animals are much more likely to be collected commercially or for subsistence than are small ones, and thus any subset of biodiversity focused on large animals will have a higher proportion of species threatened by overharvest than does a general cross-section.
- Even when size is controlled for, there are still a disproportionate number of large animals being driven close to extinction by overharvest in South-east Asia than elsewhere. This does not reflect a positive habitat situation there: indeed, habitat loss rates are among the highest in the world. It reflects the massive demand for wildlife and wildlife products among urbanised people in South-east and East Asia, coupled with the steep rise in their purchasing power over the last few decades, and the rapid infrastructure development almost throughout South-east Asia over the same time period, bringing almost everywhere within easy reach of external markets.
The ultimate trigger for trade-driven hunting is not poverty; it is in fact affluence. This is proven by the dramatic rise on trading volumes over the last few decades, which reflects exactly the meteoric rise in economic power of China and several South-east Asian nations. The best long-term solution to the issue is for the demand to drop. As with any period of rapid change, it takes time for societies to adapt. Much activity is underway in the East and South-east Asian countries to move to sustainable levels of wildlife use, but the time-scale for this is measured in decades. These long-term measures to reduce damaging trade demand need to be supported by on-the-ground protective measures for wildlife during this transition period.
Otherwise, there is the very real risk that by the time the trade is under control, many species will have disappeared from the region, or will have sunk to such low, dispersed, populations that recovery is most unlikely. Because so many species occur only in South-east Asia (and in some cases, the adjacent part of southern China and north-east India, which are facing the same set of pressures), these region losses mean global extinctions.
Invest in protected areas
Throughout South-east Asia, major advances in recent decades have been made in declaring and supplying the resources for protected areas, and in developing management systems appropriate to each protected area’s needs (almost invariably, these involve some form of co-management with local communities). Cambodia, which was still in the final throes of a bloody civil war only 15 years ago, now has several wildlife areas where highly-sought quarry species are increasing because of effective protection. The challenge to the international community is to supply resources, both financial and technical, on a sufficient scale to allow these highly encouraging successes to be scaled up.
At minimum, one effectively ‘protected area’ (whether or not it is a formal government protected area is immaterial; private nature reserves, local community initiatives, timber concessions with effective holistic forest management, may all do the job in certain circumstances; the term ‘protected area’ is used here for simplicity) is needed for each hunting-sensitive species in trade demand, or threatened as by-catch in non-selective hunting techniques used for the quarry species themselves. The present situation is a long way from this minimum. There is no effectively protected area for many of the region’s highly threatened large animal species. In simple terms, ‘fortresses’ for wildlife are needed in key locations across the region.