EXCLUSIVE Animal smugglers crawl back as pandemic restrictions ease – UN report

A pangolin walks during a press conference after Thai customs seized live pangolins, in Bangkok, Thailand Aug. 31, 2017. REUTERS/Prapan Chankaew/File Photo

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SINGAPORE, Sept. 21 (Reuters) – Following a drastic cut in wildlife trade during the pandemic, authorities in Southeast Asia must act quickly to prevent smugglers from returning to work once border controls are relaxed, according to a forthcoming forthcoming UN report.

Traffickers’ networks were disrupted as countries closed their borders and tightened surveillance when the coronavirus hit last year.

Due to the widespread perception that the virus first appeared in a Chinese wildlife market, demand for wildlife products — such as pangolins, bear bile, rhinoceros horn — also suddenly declined as people became more aware of zoonotic diseases. .

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But these changes are temporary and Southeast Asia is likely to see a sustained increase in wildlife trade and trafficking, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned in an internal report intended for law enforcement agencies in the region, and reviewed by Reuters.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific, said the pandemic has given authorities an opportunity to do more to discourage consumers and curtail the traffickers’ supply lines.

But as the smugglers creep back, official seizures of illegal animal products are beginning to increase, making it important to enforce tighter border controls.

“The moment must not be lost,” Douglas told Reuters.

Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most species-rich regions, has long been a hotspot for the wildlife trade. Rhinoceroses are killed for their horns, crocodiles are raised for their skins, otters and songbirds are captured as pets, rosewood is illegally harvested.

According to the wildlife NGO Traffic, Southeast Asian countries “function as a source, consumer and warehouse for wildlife native to both the region and the rest of the world.”

Illegal animal products are in high demand in countries such as China, Myanmar and Thailand, where they are used in traditional medicine or consumed directly.

Some governments have seized the pandemic as an opportunity to impose much-needed bans on the wildlife trade. When the coronavirus swept through the world in early 2020, China laid a… immediate ban on game meat consumption and some wildlife trade, while Vietnam stepped up enforcement of its anti-trafficking laws in July of that year.

Such policies have been effective in dampening demand significantly, the report says.

But recent law enforcement operations in China and Vietnam show that traffickers have started moving pangolins across the border again this year, Douglas said.

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Wildlife hunting and the extraction of illegal animal products have not completely stopped during the pandemic.

Through interviews with wildlife traders and traders in hard-to-control regions in countries along the Mekong River — such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China — UNODC found evidence that wildlife products are being stored until prices and demand recover. .

Park rangers in this and other parts of the world too reported seeing an increase in the hunt for livelihoods as pandemic-related economic and job loss forced people to turn to forests for survival.

“Major (smuggling) networks are still waiting for some restrictions to be lifted to resume moving larger volumes,” Douglas said.

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Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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