The global illegal wildlife trade has been threatening the already endangered wildlife that may lead to their extinction.
Closer to home, law enforcers are having a hard time catching the bad guys, who are openly offering online the illegally caught wildlife.
With the use of the Internet, smartphones and social media, illegal wildlife traders are becoming bolder, although cautious with wildlife law enforcers zeroing in on online illegal racket.
So-called middlemen, or conduits between sellers and buyers, have become smarter to avoid arrest through detection by system-generated programs.
They use misspelled words, special characters, or emojis, that allow them to do business without being spammed or flagged.
Global illegal wildlife trade is considered a transnational crime.
A report titled, “Addressing Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Philippines,” said the value of IWT worldwide is estimated at $10 billion to $23 billion a year, making it the fourth most lucrative illegal business after narcotics, human trafficking and arms.
The report was by the Asian Development Bank, Germany’s Global Environment Facility and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The value of IWT in the Philippines is estimated at P50 billion a year (roughly $1 billion), This includes the market value of wildlife, their resources, ecological role and importance, damage to habitats incurred during poaching, and loss in potential ecotourism revenues.
The Philippines, a source, consumer and transit point of IWT, is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty that seeks to curb biodiversity loss.
Philippines’ most traded wildlife
The Philippines’ most-traded wildlife are the Philippine forest turtle, Palawan pangolin, hawksbill turtle, blue-naped parrot, Southeast Asian box turtle, Palawan hill mynah, Asian leaf turtle and tokay gecko.
Lately, however, assorted native bird species have been targeted by hunters to cater to the increasing domestic demand and for export, catching the watchful eye of wildlife trade watchdog Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (Traffic).
Traffic is a leading nongovernment group working globally against illegal trade in wild animals and plants for both biodiversity conservation and sustainable developmen.
The group’s recent study revealed that illegal trade in wildlife remains unchecked and is even more rampant online.
The study, “Farmers of the Forest in Cages: The Online Trade of Hornbills in the Philippines,” found out that over 100 Philippine endemic hornbills are offered for sale online, and dozens have been seized in recent years.
Josef Job G. Raymundo, Emerson Y. Sy and Serene C.L. Chng said in the Traffic study that 143 live hornbills were offered for sale between 2018 to 2022. Of these, 73 percent were the endemic Luzon tarictic hornbill.
Meanwhile, 66 hornbills were seized in 24 incidents from 2018 to 2022.
The study was able to detect that two-thirds of the recorded traders were in Central Luzon and likely sourced wild hornbills within or from nearby provinces.
For the authors, the situation is “very worrying.”
More than half of the endemic hornbills were nestlings about to fledge. This means the birds were being targeted for illegal trade when they were most vulnerable.
“Illegal trade, both online and offline, will only make things worse for these endemic hornbills, which have low reproduction rates and breeding success,” said Chng, Traffic senior program officer.
Nesting hornbills were offered for sale in May 2022.
Online data via Facebook
Online trade data were shared through Facebook, which, in turn, had rapidly removed more than 1,800 Philippine wildlife trade groups between 2020-2022, the report said.
However, as new groups were quickly formed, it became evident that crackdowns must take place consistently and rapidly, and go beyond the removal of posts for long-term impact.
The study found out that traders had also developed more inventive and evasive strategies, including using misspelled words, codes and emojis to avoid being detected by the platform’s algorithm.
The study authors urged Facebook to permanently shut down groups involved in illegal wildlife trade, hold administrators of the groups accountable by suspending or deactivating individual accounts, and work with enforcement agencies to break the illegal trade chain.
Smuggling ‘forest farmers’
Hornbills are called “farmers of the forest” because of their feeding habits.
They eat fruits and swallow seeds, which they “plant” together with their bird droppings anywhere they go.
While hornbills are a restricted-range species, their important ecosystem function cannot be overemphasized.
Trapping in the Philippines is worse than ever, Sy told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on August 19.
Trapping is also a big problem in Indonesia, where some of the birds from the Philippines are smuggled into.
“For Philippine hornbills, there were also reports of smuggling to India. Similarly, there’s the report in Indonesia, where Mindanao rufous hornbills were seized,” he said.
Hornbills in Asean
Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim said hornbills are commonly found in Southeast Asian countries.
There are 27 species of hornbills in the Asean.
Citing a report of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Lim said four species are listed as least concern, five are endangered, four are near threatened, 11 are vulnerable, and three are critically endangered.
Lim agreed that illegal wildlife trade is prevalent and is a major threat driver of biodiversity loss.
“Anthropogenic [man-made] factors, such as illegal wildlife trade, imperils the Asean region’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems. If biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation aren’t halted, Asean’s economic trajectory may be derailed,” Lim told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on August 23.
Of the 19 threatened hornbill species in Asean, 75 percent, or 14, are affected by illegal wildlife trade.
“Some species that are captured are just considered ‘bycatch’ by poachers, who are really after the coveted helmeted hornbill,” she said.
Lim said Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, are sources, channels and target markets for illegal wildlife trade.
To stop the worsening situation, the heads of the government of the Asean member states, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States signed the ninth East Asia Summit Declaration on Combating Wildlife Trafficking in November 2014.
The declaration mentioned ACB’s role as an operational center of excellence in spearheading biodiversity conservation and management alongside regional initiatives—such as Heart of Borneo, Coral Triangle Initiative, Asean Heritage Parks, Greater Mekong Sub-Region—that safeguard and boost the region’s biodiversity.
Monitoring of ports
In a telephone interview on August 18, Police Maj. Robert Alvin Gutierrez, station chief of the Philippine National Police-Maritime Group (PNP-MG), Northern National Capital Region (NCR), told the BusinessMirror that they are always on their toes in monitoring the country’s ports to prevent the smuggling of contraband, including wildlife.
“Since September last year, we have conducted over 140 operations in the Northern NCR against illegal wildlife trade,” he said.
Unfortunately, the country’s coastline is vast and wide and some wildlife traders that use motorized banca are able to dock anywhere, he said.
Worse, Gutierrez also confirmed that illegal wildlife trade is now happening online and is targeting native birds.
“It doesn’t happen on the coastlines anymore. It happens online,” he said.
The PNP-MG NCR based in Navotas was able to rescue almost 300 wildlife species since September last year.
According to Gutierrez, authorities are having a hard time arresting unscrupulous traders involved in the illegal wildlife trade because they have become smarter and smarter.
“They are getting smarter. Sometimes, they ask for advance payment and disappear the moment they suspect the police are unto them. They are also asking for IDs now,” Gutierrez said.
Transaction via Messenger
The illegal traders who use different accounts also transact business via Messenger, he said.
On August 16, a special operation held at a fastfood parking area along Mc Arthur Highway in Barangay Ibayo, Marilao Bulacan, resulted in the arrest of a 46-year-old man in violation of the Wildlife Act.
Seized from the suspect were a live emerald dove and seven live java sparrow.
While transactions were being made via Messenger, Gutierrez said, actual trading was also happening face-to-face.
The police conduct surveillance and detective work that takes up to months until they are able to arrest the suspects.
Gutierrez said the PNP-MG conducts follow-up investigation to unmask the big fish involved in unscrupulous activities that target Philippine wildlife.