By Sharon Tshipa
To an unsuspecting visitor, the Bang Phra Waterbird Breeding Center located in the Chonburi Province of Thailand is a beautiful, calming green jungle, whose serenity is now and then nicked by melodies of all types of birds imaginable.
Before long, a sound or two capable of conjuring images of the deep wild yank one to the reality that the 100 hectares center has since become home to 127 animal species confiscated from illegal wildlife traders at airports and other points of entry around Thailand.
Established in 1992 with the mandate to collect and breed rare, and endangered native waterbird species – subsequently releasing them to the wild – the center is now home to an exotic and exceptional collection of 1005 species. Some of which have since become extinct in their countries of origin, after becoming victims of the booming and complex online illegal wildlife trade.
“The number of animals confiscated from illegal wildlife traders that we have here now surpasses that of our own birds. Within the center we have a total of 1, 484 animals constituting 180 species. 68 percent of these animals are confiscated,” said Dr Chayanid Prasanwong, of the Bang Phra Waterbird Breeding Center during a recent media tour organised by USAID Wildlife Asia, in collaboration with the Thompson Reuters Foundation and the Global Initiative Against Organised Crime.
Originating from African countries such as Madagascar, and Congo, and other places like Japan, India and Brazil, the animals that have since found refuge at the center range from the green winged iguana, the golden iguana, the sulphuric-crested cockatoo, the Congo African grey parrot, the hypo Burmese python, the boa constrictor, the bearded dragon, the common marmoset, racoons, the green winged macaw, the hyacinth macaw, the golden pheasant and the Asian small-clawed otter, among other species.
The rising numbers of confiscated animals at the center, Prasanwong said is not a true reflection of the numbers that come through their gates. “Animals we receive from the Department of National Parks usually come in very poor conditions as they easily pick up infections and often would have been injured during trafficking. 20 percent of them tend to die. But, we heal all animals that survive and host them for five years,” she said.
The consequent results of a trade fuelled by the global growth in internet usage and e-commerce is annually costing the center 400, 000 baht. Money only used on nurturing for confiscated animals. “Sometimes we have no choice but to use money we would have set aside for our birds in taking care of the confiscated ones. This is because their population is now higher,” explained Prasanwong.
Unfortunately, the center’s struggles do not end here. Receiving animals they first have to physically identify means they are usually ill prepared to meet an individual animal’s needs. “If we knew what animals to expect in advance, we would build cages and procure the right feed beforehand,” she shared.
Should online illegal wildlife trade be curbed, Bang Phra Waterbird Breeding Center’s problems, and that of 24 other centers across Thailand that take in confiscated wildlife would decrease. Efforts to end the trade are thwarted by the fact that authorities around the world have limited understanding of how online wildlife traders operate and interact with one another.
According to the May 2018 publication titled Cut The Purse Strings written by Rupert Horsely of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has increasingly moved online over the past decade, and the internet is now recognised as a key front in the global battle against environmental crimes. E-commerce, Horsely posits, holds various attractions for wildlife criminals. In particular, it enormously expands the potential markets that traders have access to while, simultaneously, increasing anonymity and lowering risk.
Sharing Horsely’s sentiments, Simone Haysom, the Senior Analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime revealed that social media is currently a significant driver of demand for wildlife products and live animals. “Social media’s role in driving demand is particularly pronounced in the pet or live animal trade. Some conservation advocates believe that the trade in some reptile and bird is conducted primarily online, and social media has proved to be a powerful facilitator of trend creation, such as the trend for ‘Thumb Monkey’ –actually marmosets– during China’s Year of the Monkey. But you can also find thriving trades in animal parts, usually as part of medicinal cures, occurring on social media,” she elucidated.
While the world continues to see very large seizures of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales, which are all high value products, Haysom highlighted that illegal trade is putting huge pressure on many other species that don’t often get as much attention. “Over 10,000 and 7,000 radiated tortoises were seized in Madagascar in separate incidents this year. And, for some species, there don’t need to be huge numbers trafficked to put them at risk of extinction. Sometimes there are only a handful of individuals left in the wild so all poaching incidents are damaging to their survival,” she expounded.
The Hyacinth Macaw, a parrot being cared for at the Bang Phra Waterbird Breeding Center is a good example, as Haysom shared that since it has been under severe pressure due to the pet trade amongst other things, this year it was reported to have probably gone extinct in the wild.
To combat this human-made threat of mass extermination evidently worsened by the indiscriminate introduction of exotic species, in combination with the rapid shifting of climate zones, Simone Haysom called on governments and general publics to put pressure on tech-companies to live up to their own policies on cracking down on the use of their platform to market or sell endangered wildlife.
“Governments also need to invest in cyber policing, and in beefing up their own laws, and in enforcement of wildlife crime laws. This should be made a political priority. The public plays an important role too,” she asserted.
Salvatore Amato, the Law Enforcement Team Lead at USAID Wildlife Asia decried the world’s sense of urgency. “I have been in this environment for a decade. I have given trainings in various countries, and have attended many conferences to this end, so what I feel is missing is a sense of urgency to ensure that these animals do not go into extinction. Animals kept in captivity cannot reproduce, these will go extinct while we are watching,” he lamented.
In recognising these developments, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in partnership with Interpol is preparing international guidelines for member states. According to Simone Haysom’s May 2018 publication titled ‘Digitally Enhanced Responses’, CITES is not the only active party working on ending online illegal wildlife trade as some non-governmental organisations have since encouraged large e-commerce companies such as Alibaba, Taobao and Tencent to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards IWT being conducted across their services.
In 2016, the publication cites that TRAFFIC, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) joined with eBay, Etsy, Gumtree, Microsoft, Pinterest, Tencent and Yahoo! to adopt a united, standardised policy framework against online IWT. Haysom further states that in 2017, eleven Chinese internet companies – led by Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba – announced an anti-IWT alliance to aid intelligence sharing with the government. This year, a global coalition of major e-commerce sites and social media sites made a landmark pledge to reduce IWT on their platforms by 80 percent by 2020. Though efforts are far from winning because social media sites like Facebook are riddled with illegal wildlife trade activities, there is hope.
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