According to an upcoming UN assessment, after a dramatic fall in wildlife trafficking during the epidemic, authorities in Southeast Asia must work quickly to prevent traffickers from resuming operations once border controls are loosened.
When the coronavirus struck last year, governments blocked their borders and intensified surveillance, disrupting traffickers' networks.
Zoonotic Disease Awareness
As people became more aware of zoonotic diseases, demand for animal items such as pangolin scales, bear bile, and rhino horn plummeted dramatically due to the prevalent belief that the virus first emerged in a Chinese market where wildlife was sold.
However, these adjustments are only temporary, and Southeast Asia is likely to experience a long-term surge in wildlife trade and trafficking, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) internal assessment reviewed by Reuters.
Seizing Animal Traffickers
The pandemic has allowed authorities to do more to deter users and tighten down on traffickers' supply lines, according to Jeremy Douglas, UNODC's representative for Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific.
However, as the smugglers return, official seizures of illegal animal products have begun to rise, emphasizing the importance of maintaining tighter border controls.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Douglas told Reuters.
Southeast Asia has long been a hotbed for wildlife trafficking, despite being one of the world's most species-rich regions. Rhinos are slaughtered for their horns, crocodiles are bred for their skin, otters and songbirds are kept pets, and rosewood is illegally harvested.
Southeast Asian countries "serve as source, consumer, and entrepôts for wildlife arriving from inside the area as well as the rest of the world," according to wildlife NGO Traffic.
Illicit animal products are in considerable demand in nations like China, Myanmar, and Thailand, employed in traditional medicine or simply ingested.
Enacting Wildlife Bans
Some governments have taken advantage of the pandemic to enact much-needed wildlife trading bans. For example, in early 2020, as the coronavirus swept the globe, China passed an instant ban on the consumption of wild meat and some wildlife commerce, while Vietnam stepped up enforcement of its anti-trafficking legislation in July of that year.
According to the research, such policies have been effective in dramatically reducing demand.
According to Douglas, traffickers have started smuggling pangolin scales across borders this year, as evidenced by recent law enforcement operations in China and Vietnam.
During the epidemic, wildlife hunting and the extraction of illegal animal products did not wholly cease.
The UNODC discovered evidence of hoarding animal items until prices and demand recover through interviews with wildlife traders and traffickers in difficult-to-police parts of nations along the Mekong River, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and China.
Increase in Hunting Activities
According to park rangers in this and other regions of the world, subsistence hunting has also increased, as pandemic-related economic and job losses prompted people to turn to forests for survival.
"Some constraints on major (trafficking) networks have yet to be lifted so that they can resume transporting larger volumes," Douglas added.
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