Dr. Felbab-Brown on Trafficking of Endangered Wildlife in East and Southeast Asia

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. She is also the director of the Brookings project, “Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives Beyond UNGASS 2016,” and co-director of another Brookings project, “Reconstituting Local Orders.” Dr. Felbab-Brown is an expert on international and internal conflicts and nontraditional security threats, including insurgency, organized crime, urban violence, and illicit economies. Her fieldwork and research have covered, among others, Afghanistan, South Asia, Burma, Indonesia, the Andean region, Mexico, Morocco, Somalia, and eastern Africa.
Dr. Felbab-Brown is the author of The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (Hurst, 2018); Narco Noir: Mexico’s Cartels, Cops, and Corruption (The Brookings Institution Press, 2019, forthcoming); Militants, Criminals, and Outsiders: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Disorder (The Brookings Institution Press, Fall 2017; co-authored with Shadi Hamid and Harold Trinkunas); Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan (Brookings Institution Press, 2013); and Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Brookings Institution Press, 2010). She is also the author of numerous policy reports, academic articles, and opinion pieces. A frequent commentator in U.S. and international media, Dr. Felbab-Brown regularly provides congressional testimony on these issues. She has also been the recipient of numerous awards in recognition of her scholarly and policy contributions. She is a co-recipient of the Department of Defense’s Minerva grant, to conduct work on non-state actor governance. Dr. Felbab-Brown received her Ph.D. in political science from MIT and her B.A. in government from Harvard University.
Sabrina Hartono CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Felbab-Brown on April 12, 2019.

How is the problem of illegal trafficking of endangered wildlife viewed in East Asia and Southeast Asia? What are the main driving forces behind the trafficking of animals?

There is a history of consuming wildlife in many forms—and not just as food. In China, there is a notion that nature is to be exploited and consumed. This is also in parallel with the notion that nature is to be controlled, that wild things are often dangerous. The idea of conservation is for the purpose of exploitation and use. This long standing millennium conception now intersects with a growing, robust demand of the rising middle classes and their increased purchasing power. Aside from China, the phenomenon can also be seen in places like Taiwan and Vietnam, which also have a rise in the supply and demand for wildlife products. Collectively, Southeast Asian countries have the biggest demand for a wide range of wildlife species and their parts.

Coinciding with this demand is a long history of hunting and poaching, in places like Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. The idea of conservation is associated with colonialism: colonial powers wanted to preserve nature and wildlife for their hunting purposes. This negative connotation, coupled with the widespread poverty in the Southeast Asian regions, motivates the continuous practice of poaching in the region. For example, the natural landscapes of Bali or Ambon in Indonesia, or the beaches around Komodo Island and their Komodo dragons, are targets of poaching and illegal trafficking.

The question regarding the perception of illegal wildlife trafficking is a trickier one. Some segments of Asian societies would like to think of themselves as modern and are eschewing the consumption of wildlife. However, at the same time, there are more people in the rising middle class and college-educated who are part of this increased robust demand for wildlife consumption. There is definitely much more awareness of the harms brought about by poaching and animal trafficking in China and Southeast Asia than a decade ago. The practice, however, is still very much prevalent.

Many Asian subcultures value exotic animals and their parts--such as elephant ivory, pangolin scales, hornbill crests--as decoration and as symbols of social status. How did this fascination with certain animals come about in Asia? How does it vary within the region?

There are enormous differences among regions. For instance, the animal parts used as status symbols are very different in India than in China. Even within a country there are differences. In Tibet, the preferred animals used as symbols of status, wealth and prestige are very different from the animals in southern China. In Sulawesi, Indonesia, there are communities that adore products made out of an indigenous subspecies of the Macaque monkey. The more Macaque monkeys a community kills, the more prestige they have. On the other hand, in Java, one’s collection of caged birds are the preferred indication of prestige. Despite the wide variation, there is an overarching commonality of this fascination with animals being used not only as a function for decoration and displays of wealth.

How the fascination began is a more difficult question. If we look at Chinese traditional medicine and its beliefs--eating eagle eyes can cure blindness, tiger penises has aphrodisiac qualities--they were very appealing back in the ancient times when there was a lack of scientific knowledge. Aside from decoration purposes, health benefits were a strong motivation. Moreover, these products were considered luxuries and only a few could afford them. Now, tens, even hundreds of millions of people in China have the financial capacity to afford these products. The motivations of buying the products are not new, but it is the access to them that has grown tremendously. Apart from the deeply anchor traditions, it is also important to understand the economy of wildlife trade. Throughout East and Southeast Asia, wildlife traders have constantly invented and perpetuated aphrodisiacal perceptions of exotic animal parts.

Consider the hornbills from Kalimantan. These were all indigenous animals that created huge hunting opportunities. About a decade ago, Chinese wildlife traders invented myths associated with the aphrodisiac qualities of these animals. For instance, Chinese people began consuming powdered hornbill bills believing in these mystical properties. Since a hornbill’s bill is cheaper than a rhinoceros’ horn, more people turned to this alternative and consumed more of them. This increased the poaching of hornbills in Kalimantan.

Wildlife traders and poachers behave exactly like legal corporations; they invent demand for new markets and products constantly. It is definitely a new phenomenon that traders invent such narratives to generate demand for a wider range of exotic animals in the market.

While international trade threatens many species, a lot of endangered species are not listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a treaty meant to ensure that trade does not imperil the survival of threatened species. Some blame the extensive bureaucratic process of updating the list of species for the lag in bridging science, policy, and practice. How do bureaucratic rigidities at the state level affect the future of wildlife diversity in Southeast Asia?

Bureaucracies are crucial, especially in the process of translating the intent of a policy with the actual practical outcomes. However, bureaucracies can also be problematic if they are designed in a way that they create blockages or obstruct policy. Unfortunately, there are quite a few problematic bureaucracies in Asian countries. It is also impossible to simply rely on bureaucracies. They rely on others for information about the changes in the landscape. One thing to keep in mind about CITES is that they do not have enforcing mechanisms. Its Secretariat provides advice and technical support to each individual member state. So if CITES decides that a species is now endangered and the hunting and trading of it is illegal, there are no CITES forces to enforce their recommendations. Changes have to take place at the level of individual states.

The process of listing a species as endangered under CITES is very complex. The decision has to be negotiated among all individual member states. Thus, there are challenges from the international system but there are also equally crucial challenges on the level of individual states.

The other big problem in Southeast Asia is with their respective governments. Many of the departments in their respective governments are influenced by external interested parties. For example, the environmental ministry is influenced by the logging industry, and so they are forced to implement policies that subvert the issue of wildlife trafficking.

Among the Southeast Asian countries that engage in the trafficking of exotic wildlife, which countries are the leading importers of forbidden animal products? How is the legal enforcement of wildlife protection responsible in the importing and exporting countries?

The leading producer is China. However, the Philippines is also a very significant player and significant importer of wildlife. For some specific products like rhino horn, Vietnam is important. Indonesia is also a huge source country for all kinds of wildlife: snakes, turtles, tortoises, seals, fish, birds, and monkeys. But Indonesia is simultaneously a huge consumer country for wildlife, particularly continental birds.

The responsibility of legal enforcement in these countries all depend on their role in the supply chain. For supplying countries: their governments should be focused on preventing poaching. In Sulawesi, Indonesia, there are agencies that are meant to protect wildlife and regulate people who are attempting to poach these animals. The Indonesian Navy should also be on alert to investigate and identify ships that are carrying dead or alive trafficked animals. Although in source countries, the role of law enforcement is to prevent poaching in the first place, they also have the responsibility to regulate the export of these animals, as well as to protect natural areas to prevent habitat degradation.

In transit countries, like Singapore for example, law enforcement is supposed to make sure that their countries are not used as a transportation network that facilitates the trafficking of these animal parts. They are also supposed to provide intelligence for both the demand and supply countries on seizures of parts and the identification of illegally trafficked animals. Through the sharing of this information, the source country should be able to better identify and dismantle the poaching and trafficking network in their country, and the demand country better at dismantling the retail network.

Lastly for demand countries, law-enforcement is to ensure that the animal parts or live animals are unable to be transported into a country. They are supposed to dismantle retail markets and the black market smuggling corporations. Around the world, and throughout Southeast Asia, law-enforcement fails each of these dimensions and transborder international cooperation is a rare exception.

From bear bile and tiger penises to manta-ray gill raker plates, some traditional Chinese folk medicine promotes the use of exotic animal parts for their medicinal and health-improving properties. Although their medicinal value has been disproven by modern science, the robust demand from Asian societies persists. Why is this the case?  

The appeal of traditional Chinese medicine practices persist because there is a long tradition in the country’s culture and history. There is generational pressure from the elder generation to the younger generation to continue these traditions for weddings or other celebrations. Although disproven by modern science in the West, in Southeast Asia governments still reinforce these perceptions of animal exotic animal parts having medicinal value.

Just last October there was a controversy when China’s government published that tiger parts and rhino horns as having medicinal value. Recently East Asian countries effectively lobbied the World Health Organization to publish that plants and animals of various kinds of have medicine of value. So this belief still persists in Asia and is still aggressively promoted by governments in the East.  

A report from the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC released in June 2018 detailed an extensive two-year long investigation of the poaching of juvenile otters for the widespread online pet trade in Southeast Asia. How would you use this example to illuminate to allure of exotic pets in the region?

In the region and the world, there is a fascination of keeping wild animals as pets. It is not a trend unique to Southeast Asia. For example, in the Middle East and in the Gulf regions, affluent families often keeps cheetahs as pets. Despite the families not being able to provide the appropriate conditions for the animals to survive, they will still import cheetah cubs from Africa to their homes in Saudi Arabia. During the period of transporting the wild cats, the cheetahs have become seriously ill or have died. In Southeast Asia, the orangutans, chimpanzees and other primates are popular choices for pets. The otter case is just one particular example of a global phenomenon. There seems to be some sort of emotional fulfillment of keeping wild animals as pets. As I mentioned, it is probably this persisting perception of being able to tame nature and control it.

 The rise and popularity of social media platforms have enabled wildlife cybercrime to flourish and pose a new challenge for legislators and enforcement officers. At the same time, extensive media coverage of wildlife trafficking helps shape social norms that condemn the practice. Going forward, how can social media can be a force for good in reducing of wildlife trafficking in Asia?

Social media can spread norms that discourage the poaching and consumption of wild animals. Big online platforms often take various measures to combat cybercrime, like disabling pages that have the activities of trafficking in illegal animal products. There are also indications that big social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp are shutting down web pages and eliminating accounts that traffic wild animals. Of course, more challenging than the online sphere are private social platforms, which seem to be the key trading mechanism of the industry moving forward. Enforcement is not impossible, it can take place through infiltration and undercover work. Law enforcement officials and NGO members could pose as potential buyers and traders of the wildlife trading economy, and enter these closed private circles to collect information and evidence that would incriminate these trading groups.


Sabrina Hartono CMC '21Student Journalist
“Pangolin populations in Africa and Asia are decreasing rapidly due to poaching and international illegal trafficking.”

Image courtesy of the Official photographer of the U.S.Embassy in Ghana
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