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Are you unknowingly helping the illegal wildlife trade?

Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

At the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, the Philippines woke up to news of two ostriches running around a Quezon City subdivision. People were aghast to find out that one died from stress following that neighborhood run, and that their owner did not have the necessary clearances from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to keep these ostriches as pets.

Curiously, pet acquisition has risen around the world, including the Philippines, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with the rise in demand for cats and dogs is the surge in the exotic pet trade.

Exotic pets can be loosely defined to include reptiles, amphibians, birds or basically anything that is not a domesticated dog or a cat. Chances are, you probably know someone who keeps geckos, turtles, or pythons as pets.

While there are exotic pets that can be legally owned, most require a certification from the DENR. Unfortunately, a number of these exotic pets are part of the illegal wildlife trade – a complex web that spans boundaries and has even been linked to organized crime. The illegal wildlife trade itself is estimated by the World Bank to be worth between $7.8-10 billion globally. A part of this web are the traders catering to the pet market.

As an animal hobbyist, I have been approached a number of times by sellers of illegally traded animals – once while I was at a pet supplies store buying dog stuff, another time at the vet’s office, and another by a sell-anything trader who offered me everything from ice cream and rugs to endangered black pond turtles, tarantulas, and myna birds. Did these animals have papers from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), I always asked. “Wala ma’m, mas mamahal pag may papeles,” was the usual answer. Usually, these traders find their buyers on social media.

This simply confirms what the Department of Environment & Natural resources (DENR) has noted about the persistence of the illegal wildlife trade during the pandemic. In fact, the government has confiscated 42 species of threatened and endangered turtles in one entrapment operation in 2020  – including the black pond turtles which are  classified as “critically endangered”  in the Updated List of Threatened Philippine Fauna and their Categories. Other animals confiscated this year include illegally trafficked raptors and peregrine falcons, mostly from repeat offenders.

To be sure, the government has enough laws in place, but penalties under Republic Act (RA) 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001 are far too low, with penalties ranging from fines of P30,000 to P300,000 for hunting; P5,000 to P300,000 for trading; and P50,000 to P100,000 for transporting wildlife. First time violators are easily granted probation, and can easily post bail. DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu himself has said that a more stringent law is needed to curb the illegal wildlife trade.

While poachers and traders are definitely part of the problem, unknowing consumers are equally responsible for the surge in the illegal pet trade. Take the plantita craze that has spurred demand for endangered plants – some buyers are so enamored with the thought of having a “rare” plant that they simply overlook where it came from. Similarly, the thought of owning a “rare” or prized animal is just too irresistible for some hobbyists that they forget to ask questions about its source, and overlook the fact that they are speeding up species and biodiversity loss.

Unfortunately, the average Filipino consumer has low awareness of the illegal wildlife trade and the importance of biodiversity conservation. A good number of exotic pet buyers are not even aware that owning or buying these illegally sourced pets puts them afoul of the law. For those who know that there are restrictions on their sale, a good number are unable to identify what these endangered or threatened species are, much less how they look like in real life. Sadly, that problem is not limited to consumers, but also to traders and even the very officials who are tasked to carry out illegal wildlife laws. Endangered animals can easily be passed off as allowed species by traders who take advantage of the information gap. 

Definitely, this is one area where interventions are needed. Awareness-raising and consumer education are a necessary first step in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.  At the same time, efforts should be made to make people appreciate biodiversity and the need to protect the Philippines’ endangered species. There is also space for capacity development so that NGOs and officials at the national and local levels are equipped with the needed tools and information to make them better fulfill their roles in stopping the illegal wildlife trade.

Fighting the illegal wildlife trade is a herculean task but that would require a multi-dimensional approach to its various facets. Building consumer awareness is a critical step that should not be overlooked in this war.

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