BANGKOK — A report by the World Wildlife Fund finds that illegal online purchases of wildlife in Myanmar are on the rise, posing a threat to both the public Health and for endangered species.
The report published Friday found that enforcement of a ban on such transactions has weakened amid political turmoil following a military takeover in 2021.
The number of such transactions rose 74% from a year earlier to 11,046, almost all related to the sale of live animals. Of the 173 species traded, 54 are in danger of extinction, the report said.
Researchers identified 639 Facebook accounts of wildlife traders. The largest online trading group had more than 19,000 members and dozens of posts per week, it said.
The animals and parts of animals that were bought and sold included elephants, bears and gibbons, Tibetan antelope, critically endangered pangolins and an Asian giant tortoise. The most popular mammals were various species of langurs and monkeys, which were often bought as pets.
Most of the animals for sale have been taken from the wild. They also include civets, which have been identified along with pangolins as potential vectors in the spread of diseases such as SARS and COVID-19.
Shaun Martin, head of WWF’s Asia-Pacific regional cybercrime project, said monitoring the online wildlife trade shows that different species are kept close together, sometimes in the same cage.
“With Asia’s track record as a breeding ground for many recent zoonotic diseases, this surge in Myanmar’s online wildlife trade is extremely worrying,” he said.
The unregulated trade in wild species and resulting interactions between wild species and humans increase the risk of new and potentially vaccine-resistant mutations from diseases like COVID-19 that could evolve undetected in non-human hosts into more dangerous variants of diseases, experts say .
COVID-19 is one of many diseases that can be traced back to animals. The killing and selling of what is known as bushmeat in Africa has been considered a source of Ebola. The bird flu likely came from chickens at a Hong Kong market in 1997. Measles is thought to have developed from a virus that infected livestock.
“Illegal wildlife trade is a serious concern from the perspective of biodiversity conservation and conservation and its potential impact on Health safety,” said Mary Elizabeth G. Miranda, a zoonotic disease and disease expert and CEO of the Field Epidemiology Training Program Alumni Foundation in the Philippines.
Social media and other online platforms have joined a global effort to halt the booming trade in birds, reptiles, mammals and animal parts. In Myanmar, much of the wildlife trade takes place through Facebook, which, as a member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking, has taken action online to block or delete accounts of people involved in such transactions.
But as is the case elsewhere, new accounts often pop up as old ones are shut down, hampering enforcement, the report said. Easy online access to the animals also drives up demand, exacerbating the problem.
Discussions about purchases of protected species often took place in open Facebook groups, suggesting that such transactions remain “largely risk-free,” the report said. Since payments and deliveries are often made using messenger apps, controlling the problem is doubly difficult.
To emphasize the lack of enforcement, people in Myanmar’s illegal wildlife trade often use rudimentary methods to move the animals and animal products – with buses being the usual mode of transport.
WWF’s investigation in Myanmar focused on the online trade of animals and other creatures in the country, although there were also imports from neighboring Thailand, mainly birds such as cockatoos and parrots and crocodiles, to India.
Some deals may involve animals or parts sent to China, it said.
The conservation group said it plans future studies to better understand Myanmar’s role in the global trade in endangered species.