Marine Biodiversity Hotspot Turns into a Wildlife Trafficking Hotbed in Southeast Asia

Marine Biodiversity Hotspot Turns into a Wildlife Trafficking Hotbed in Southeast Asia
The Southeast Asia region, known for its rich marine biodiversity, has become a hotspot for illegal wildlife trade. 
A recent report has shed light on the alarming extent of wildlife trafficking in the Southeast Asian maritime border zone between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The region, known for its rich marine biodiversity, has become a hotspot for illegal wildlife trade, leading experts to call for urgent intergovernmental action to safeguard this ecologically significant area.


Unveiling the Extent of Wildlife Trafficking

The report, compiled by wildlife trade monitoring nonprofit TRAFFIC, reveals shocking statistics from the Sulu and Celebes seas region. Over the period of 2003 to 2021, more than 25,000 live animals and a staggering 120,000 metric tons of wildlife, parts, and plants were seized in this area alone. Rays, sharks, turtles, and a diverse range of species were trafficked primarily between Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
Marine turtle smuggling constitutes a significant concern, with 28% of all seizures involving turtle eggs. The majority of these seizures occur between the southern Philippines and Sabah, Malaysia, with the bustling city of Sandakan serving as a key entry point for their illegal transport. Sharks and rays, including endangered species, are also heavily targeted, with over 29,000 shark products seized primarily in the Philippines. The online trade of these species, particularly through platforms like Lazada and Shopee, continues to fuel the illegal wildlife trade.
The smuggling of marine turtles — nearly all of which are endangered or critically endangered — is a major issue in the Sulu-Celebes seas region, with all three countries implicated in the trade. Image courtesy of TRAFFIC.

Marine Biodiversity at Risk and Transboundary Links 

The Sulu and Celebes seas region lies at the apex of the Coral Triangle, a global marine biodiversity hotspot. TRAFFIC’s findings underscore the urgent need for intergovernmental intervention to protect this vital ecosystem. The targeted species, including marine turtles, giant clams, seahorses, sharks, and rays, play crucial roles in maintaining ecological balance. However, their populations are dwindling due to the alarming frequency of illicit activities in the region.
The people residing in the Sulu and Celebes seas region share strong transboundary cultural and trade connections, which have inadvertently facilitated illegal wildlife trade. Their engagement in local trade, often involving illicit goods, has created a complex network for the trafficking of endangered species. The report emphasizes the need for enhanced international cooperation in enforcement efforts to curb this rampant activity.

Combatting the Illicit Trades 

TRAFFIC calls for increased vigilance and cooperation among law enforcement agencies and tech companies to tackle the persistent issue of online trade. The report highlights the importance of employing existing traceability tools to combat wildlife trafficking and implementing enhanced regulations for the legal trade of sharks and rays. The ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) echoes these concerns, emphasizing the need for collective efforts to curb biodiversity loss and protect vulnerable species in the region.
Given the intricate nature of the illegal wildlife trade and the low number of successful convictions, the report emphasizes the significance of a comprehensive, regional approach to finding solutions. Increased interagency and transboundary cooperation is essential to tackle this multifaceted problem effectively. By joining forces, the countries involved can address the interconnected challenges posed by wildlife trafficking and preserve the remarkable biodiversity of the Southeast Asian marine ecosystem.
Illegal Wildlife Trade: Baseline for Monitoring and Law Enforcement in the Sulu-Celebes Seas Report author(s): Olivia H. Armstrong, Rama Wong, Antonio Lorenzo, Amirah Sidik, Glenn Sant, Serene Chng

Lead image courtesy of Raw Pixel.