Asia's biodiversity vanishing into the marketplace

February 09, 2004

Unless the wildlife trade can be controlled, Asia will lose much of its unique biodiversity, experts of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said today in Kuala Lumpur at the 7th Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-7), convened to address the world's priority conservation issues.

"Asia's wildlife is being sold on a massive scale throughout the region for food, medicines and pets, and populations of many species are declining or facing local extinction," said WCS scientist Dr Melvin Gumal, a participant at COP-7 and Director of WCS's Malaysia Program.

The trade includes everything from small songbirds sold as pets, to reptiles sold on a massive scale for their skins and their meat, to animal parts for medicinal use. Even species once thought of as common are becoming rare as they are being trapped, shot or snared and sent to the marketplace. The result is loss of wildlife across the region.

"In many parts of Asia, it is easier to see animals in the markets than in the forest," said COP-7 delegate Dr Kent Redford, Director of WCS's Conservation Institute and originator of the "empty forest syndrome" concept, used to describe forests after hunters decimate their animal populations. "As animals that perform vital roles in the forest as predators, pollinators and seed dispersers disappear, other species will also go."

In last 40 years, 12 species of large animals have become extinct or virtually extinct in Vietnam due mainly to hunting and wildlife trade. Even protected areas are losing their wildlife. In Sulawesi, the ranges of the anoa (a small species of wild cattle) and babirusa (a member of the pig family) are shrinking because of hunting pressure. In Thailand's Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep National Parks, all tigers, elephants or wild cattle have been hunted out.

Some actions are being taken. Thailand and Lao PDR have both recently conducted major enforcement operations to try to reduce the illegal trade in their cities. Assisted by the NGO TRAFFIC, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur's airports have stepped up efforts to prevent transit of illegal wildlife.

The Malaysian state of Sarawak has taken it further. In 1998, the Government of Sarawak (Malaysia) banned all commercial wildlife trade throughout the state. To enforce this new policy, major legal changes were made to the existing Wild Life Protection Ordinance (1998), and gun owners were also restricted to cartridges purchases of 10/gun owner/month. Mass publicity, conservation education and enforcement programmes were then carried out repeatedly in the rural and urban areas. Within five years, all visible commercial wildlife trade disappeared from the major markets in the cities and smaller towns.

"The Sarawak case shows that it can be done," said Dr. Elizabeth Bennett, Director of the Hunting and Wildlife Trade Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Commercial wildlife trade can be curtailed through the combination of education programs, strong laws, and effective enforcement. In the last six months alone the Sarawak government has seized 457.1 kg of wild meat and 165 live animals--birds, primates, reptiles and fish--through its newly strengthened enforcement operations."

In addition to reducing the loss of the world's biodiversity, COP-7 will also address priority issues such as the biodiversity of mountain ecosystems, the role of protected areas in conserving biodiversity, and the transfer of technology and technology cooperation.

With the CBD's increasing emphasis on balancing protection with sustainable use of natural resources, the trade in wildlife must been seen for what it is: an unsustainable practice that is rapidly depleting Asia's forests, rivers and oceans.
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Wildlife Conservation Society

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