The Illegal Trade in Wildlife in Southeast Asia and Its Links to East Asian Markets

Editor’s note: In this book chapter from

An Atlas of Trafficking in Southeast Asia

(I.B. Tauris 2013), Vanda Felbab-Brown traces how increasing demand for wildlife and wildlife products has devastated regional and global ecosystems in Asia. Underlying the unsustainable and ill-regulated wildlife trade has been the limited progress to curb exploding demand for wildlife products.


Mainland Southeast Asia, with its linkages into the larger Asian market that includes China, Indonesia and India, is one of the world’s ‘wildlife trade hotspots’ – that is, a region where unsustainable and ill-regulated trade in wildlife poses a disproportionally large threat to biodiversity and species preservation. Both the volume and diversity of traded and consumed species have increased to phenomenal and unprecedented levels. Wildlife is currently being extracted from Southeast Asia’s tropical forests at six times the sustainable rate. The region is a key supplier of the international market in wildlife, legal and illegal. Increasing global buying power, population growth and globalisation have led to a rise in demand for wildlife in developed, emerging and developing countries alike. However, Southeast and East Asia today probably represent the areas of the most intense legal and illegal trade in wildlife, with China as one of the biggest (if not the biggest) consumers of wildlife products in the world. China’s exploding demand, a result of the increasing affluence of its expanding middle class, has turned the country into a great vacuum, sucking natural environments empty of wildlife – not only from China’s and her Southeast, South and East Asian neighbours, but also from across the ocean in Africa and elsewhere.

Law enforcement efforts and public awareness of the ecological harms in Southeast and East Asia have been inadequate even to reduce the scale of the threat. Yet the need for vastly increased effectiveness of policy action is urgent. Unlike other illegal economies, such as the drug trade, that exploit resources that can be renewed, and thus can be conducted infinitely, the illegal trade in wildlife is drastically depleting its marketable products, unfortunately at an irretrievable cost to humankind and the world’s ecology. Once endangered species are extirpated at the hands of poachers and traffickers, they are gone and there is often no bringing them back.

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