Wildlife Trafficking, Like Everything Else, Has Gone Online during COVID-19
June 1, 2021
When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020 in Southeast Asia, its governments took rapid containment actions: lockdowns, travel restrictions, and trade suspensions, alerting the public about the virus. The pandemic has also put illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade under the spotlight due to enhanced restrictions on movement and increasing awareness about the public health risks associated with wildlife consumption. The long-term impacts, though, remain to be seen.
Data from the fourth edition of the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Digest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), released May 21 this year, indicate that seizures of pangolin parts in China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand dropped significantly in 2020, with 48 incidents in 2020 compared to 82 in 2019. The total volume of seizures also fell sharply to 9,765 kilograms (10.8 tons) of pangolin products from 2019’s 155,795 kg (171.7 tons). The report also found decreases in both the number and volume of seizures of tiger parts and elephant products. A total of 121 reported ivory seizures was recorded for 2020, down by 36% from 380 in 2019.
The trade in wildlife and wildlife products is increasingly shifting to online platforms as traffickers have found new ways to connect with potential buyers. Experts say that due to limited law enforcement capacities, encrypted online or undetected transactions, the online trade is particularly difficult to address.
Amid the pandemic’s increased enforcement activities, experts noticed that traders employ a shift in strategies: Traders resorted to stockpiling ivory, pangolin scales, and fossilized giant clamshells. A recent survey by WWF, released May 24, found that nearly 30% of respondents in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States say they have consumed less or stopped consuming wildlife altogether due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, 9% of respondents said they were intent on purchasing wildlife products in the future.
The USAID report says COVID-19 has drawn attention to the threat that the illegal wildlife trade poses to human health, the global economy, and biodiversity, but it also revealed the inadequacies of wildlife legislation, policies, and enforcement on a global scale. China, the Philippines, ASEAN, have changed legislation to strengthen the enforcement of illegal wildlife traffic and trade. Educating the public is an important method to reduce the demand for wildlife products.
Read more on the report by USAID here.