Countries across Southeast Asia are being systematically drained of wildlife to meet a booming demand for exotic pets in Europe and Japan and traditional medicine in China — posing a greater threat to many species than habitat loss or global warming.
More than 35 million animals were legally exported from the region over the past decade, official figures show, and hundreds of millions more could have been taken illegally. Almost half of those traded were seahorses and more than 17 million were reptiles. About 1 million birds and 400,000 mammals were traded, along with 18 million pieces of coral.
The situation is so serious that experts have invented a new term — empty forest syndrome — to describe the gaping holes in biodiversity left behind.
“There’s lots of forest where there are just no big animals left,” says Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. “There are some forests where you don’t even hear birds.”
Seahorses, butterflies, turtles, lizards, snakes, macaques, birds and corals are among the most common species exported from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Much of the business is controlled by criminal gangs, Shepherd says, and many of the animals end up in Europe as pets. The rarer the species, the greater the demand and the higher the price. Collectors will happily pay several thousand pounds for a single live turtle.
Vincent Nijman, a researcher at Oxford Brookes University in England, who has investigated the trade, said: “We see species that are in fashion traded in great numbers until they are wiped out and people can’t get them any more. So another one comes in, and then that is wiped out, and then another comes in.”
130,000 butterflies, mostly from Malaysia to US, EU and Canada (such as the Birdwing).
16 million seahorses, mostly from Thailand to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.
73,000 exotic fish, mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia to Hong Kong (such as the Napoleon Wrasse).
17 million reptiles, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, to Singapore, EU and Japan; includes 1.3 million softshell turtles, 1.8 million cobras, 8.1 million monitor lizards, 400,000 crocodiles.
400,000 mammals, mostly from China and Malaysia to the EU and Singapore; includes 270,000 macaques, 91,000 leopard cats.
1 million birds, mainly from China, Vietnam and Malaysia, to the EU, Japan and Malaysia (such as leiothrix babblers).
18 million pieces of coral and 2,000 tonnes of live coral, mainly from Indonesia to the US and EU.
* CITES TRADE DATA FOR 1998-2007,
INCLUDING THOSE WILD AND CAPTIVE-BRED
“In Asia, everybody knows the value of wildlife, so people go into the forest and, whatever they encounter, they know it has a value and that there is someone they can sell it to,” he said.
Nijman’s research offers the first glimpse of the size of this widespread trade. While most people are aware of illegal sales of rhino horn and ivory, he says it is the scale of the movement of lesser-known species that is most disturbing.
He analyzed 53,000 records of imports and exports from countries under CITES, the international convention that regulates the sale of wildlife. Most common species are not listed under CITES, so do not appear in the records. Trade in the most endangered, such as rhino and tiger, is banned. Nijman looked at species considered vulnerable enough that trade is allowed, but controlled.
“I’m not against the wildlife trade at all. I think it is a very important economic driver for a large part of the region and a lot of people are dependent on it,” he said. “But it has to be done in such a way that you don’t finish it all this year. It’s not like oil, where you drill it out and then it’s gone. If you organize and regulate it properly, it should go on for ever.”
CITES records between 1998 and 2007 showed that of more than 35 million animals exported during that period, some 30 million were taken from the wild. The EU and Japan were among the most significant importers.
For some mammal species, the proportion sourced from the wild dropped significantly over the decade, and traders were forced to rely increasingly on captive-bred animals. Official trade in birds virtually disappeared by 2007, probably because of bird flu restrictions.