Myanmar's Leadership Needed on ASEAN Illegal Wildlife Trade (PHOTOS)

06/26/2013 10:20 am ET | Updated Aug 26, 2013

Earlier this month, leading government, industry and civil society leaders descended upon Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar for the 22nd World Economic Forum on East Asia. With Myanmar poised to take over as Chair of ASEAN in 2014 leading up to the charted 2015 realization of the ASEAN Economic Community, the gathering marked a new milestone in Myanmar's political and regional leadership. One key issue was not squarely tabled.

As Chair of ASEAN, Myanmar would be well served to address the illegal wildlife trade. It is not only an environmental issue, but has economic, security, and health implications. This year, the United Nations called Illegal wildlife trafficking a serious transnational criminal activity because it has fueled and funded conflicts, terrorism, and other illicit activity. Myanmar should focus on this issue, or its omission will have grave costs.

Myanmar has some of the world's greatest biodiversity. Its Northern Forest Complex is the home to elephants, bears, leopards, and hundreds of species of birds. At the core of the forest lies an 8,500 square mile tract - the Myanmar's Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary - which is the world's largest tiger reserve, a place biologically critical in a world where only about 3,000 wild tigers remain. Myanmar also has the most elephants in Southeast Asia.

To protect this biodiversity, Myanmar has an elaborate system of forest laws, which pre-date the military government, and a new government commitment to ban all timber exports starting next year. In 1994, Myanmar also enacted the Protection of Wildlife and Wild Plants, and Conservation of Natural Areas Law, which forbids the possession, sale or export of endangered animals or their parts, making such acts punishable by a fine of 30,000MMK -50,000 MMK and /or imprisonment of up to 7 years. Three years later, Myanmar signed the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). In 2010, Myanmar chaired the 5th Annual Meeting of ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Networks, and in 2011 created a national inter-agency Wildlife Enforcement Law Enforcement Task Force.

However, reports suggest significant trade in elephants, Asiatic bears, sun bears, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, cloud leopards, turtles, tortoises, and pangolins from Myanmar to its neighbors. Bears are hunted for their gall bladder and bile, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Big cats parts such as whole skins, paws, bones and penises are used for religious amulets, decorative pieces, aphrodisiacs, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Moreover, what makes Myanmar a potential hub for regional trade also makes it ideally located as a transit point for the illegal wildlife trade. Myanmar shares porous borders with China, Bangladesh, India, Lao PDR and Thailand. For example, one study by TRAFFIC, a world-wide non-government organization dedicated to monitoring the illegal wildlife trade, found that widespread distribution of big cat parts occurred through markets in Mong La, near the China border and Tachilek, on the Thai border. According to TRAFFIC, in just a 12-day period, researchers found, parts from at least 215 bears being openly traded in Myanmar border markets near China and Thailand. Thus despite its wildlife laws, enforcement is at most ad-hoc; and of low priority in areas where armed groups control.

Why is this a problem? From other countries, we know that wildlife crime destroys biodiversity and the services that healthy ecosystems provide. Illegal wildlife trade deprives governments direct revenue from sales of state managed natural resources and avoids indirect revenue from taxes on private sector exports. It prevents local communities obtaining sustainable livelihoods, with small-scale local poachers receiving but a fraction of the value end-users pay. It can undermine national security because insurgent groups often support their activities via sales of contraband that includes wildlife. It also poses serious threats to health as the transport of wildlife products can spread disease.

These challenges are not unique to Myanmar but occur across Southeast Asia. Thailand and Vietnam, for example, came under scrutiny in March this year at the 16th CITES meeting in Bangkok. Thailand was criticized for failing to properly regulate its national ivory trade, with legal loopholes allowing imported foreign ivory to be passed off as a legal domestic product. Vietnam was told that rhino horn smuggling was increasing across its borders. These issues are of serious international importance. African countries spend millions of dollars annually on protection efforts, while clashes with heavily armed militant groups cost dozens of rangers their lives each year. But both Thailand and Vietnam are now taking strong measures to address the crisis.

With greater openness, escalating regional demand from China and other ASEAN countries, and realization of the ASEAN Economic Community, the situation is likely to accelerate. Under moves toward economic integration, any inconsistencies in national laws or enforcement will see wildlife criminals moving to exploit the weakest nations in the bloc. To address the similar possibility, the European Union established a common CITES framework that encompasses all of its member states when it was first formed. ASEAN would benefit by adopting a similarly consistent approach to wildlife laws and enforcement.

Thus, as Myanmar assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 and plays a key role in leading the ten member group towards the ASEAN Economic Community, it should consider the challenges that greater openness can bring, and should steer ASEAN to adopt a strong framework to stop the illegal wildlife trade and ensure it is enforced.

Myanmar Illegal Wildlife Trade

Photo credit: TRAFFIC

Written by Kala Mulqueeny, Principal Counsel, Asian Development Bank, World Economic Forum, Young Global Leader and William Schaedla, Regional Director, TRAFFIC South-east Asia. Traffic is a joint program of the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.