Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) is a lesser-understood problem with big consequences for Asia and the Pacific, and for Southeast Asia in particular. It is considered the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide, and is often linked to other serious crimes, such as anti-money laundering. With IWT being considered a predicate offense, following the money to freeze those assets—for reinvestment into conservation—is essential to defeat the heads of criminal networks.
At first glance, IWT seems an unlikely fit with the work of the Asian Development Bank. But it isn’t. It isn’t possible to alleviate poverty if the balance of natural ecosystems is altered, and the provision of ecosystem services is affected. To combat IWT, ADB embarked on a three-year project to combat organized environmental crime in the Philippines, financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented together with the Department of Natural Resources (DENR)-Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB). The project recently concluded and, after winning a wildlife award for its project resources, has been hailed as a model for how to strengthen policy, build capacity, and reduce demand.
From the drafting of laws over machine learning to awareness on social media, this is how the project came about by those who were involved.
OIC Division Chief, Wildlife Resources Division, DENR-BMB
The Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (RA 9147) was a groundbreaking law passed in 2001 that expanded protection coverage to all wildlife and empowered regulation agencies to combat IWT. But in the 21 years that followed, organized crime syndicates were able to exploit legal loopholes due to the law’s vague language, low fines, and penalties that failed to serve as a deterrent. There was also limited enforcement capacity.
The DENR-ADB/GEF Project was instrumental in assisting the Philippine government to consult nationwide stakeholders, draft its version of the amendatory bill, and look for champions in the legislature. It also helped support the legislative and public advocacy campaigns for the bill, including assistance in the creation and signing of position papers. As of writing, the draft amendatory bill has already been passed in the country’s lower house, while the Senate version has already been filed in plenary for second reading—a major feat considering the complexities and procedures involved in proposing and passing national legislation. Efforts are now underway to have it passed within the remaining months of the 18th Congress.
Project Officer, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, ADB
Criminal activities are quick to adapt to law enforcement processes, which is why it is important for people involved in counter-IWT activities to stay updated and learn how to use new technologies. Even before the pandemic, e-commerce had become one of the main trade channels for IWT. Offenders often use pseudonyms and are protected by social media privacy regulations, so their criminal activities are very difficult to track by law enforcers and traffickers can reach a wider audience. Our Project collaborated with the University of Helsinki to pilot a study involving the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to detect the trade of some threatened Philippine species on digital media. Even if the results were anonymized to comply with national and international laws, they highlighted the potential of this methodology to automatically scan millions of webpages and highlight suspicious activities.
Another innovative study that we undertook was a monetary estimate of the value of some of the most trafficked taxa in the Philippines. Collecting data from direct surveys and available scientific literature, the study found that the use value generated by the Philippine marine turtle and blue-naped parrot populations can be quantified at about $64 million and $6 million, respectively, per year. Even if assigning a monetary value on nature is still controversial, it can be a very useful tool for policymakers to better understand the importance of protecting these species and the potential economic damage of poaching.
Executive Director, Tanggol Kalikasan
To build and reinforce long-term capacity among wildlife law enforcement authorities, there is a need to understand the effectiveness of current responses to combating wildlife and forest crime. The DENR-ADB/GEF Project, in partnership with UNODC, supported a national self-assessment on issues related to wildlife crime, using the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime Indicator Framework. Stakeholders from numerous law enforcement agencies joined the consultations to identify gaps and determine the effectiveness of their actions. It was found, among others, that the government should increase the use of intelligence-led approaches in wildlife crime investigations. Another achievement of the Project was the assessment of seven domestic and international seaports in the Philippines with the PortMATE tool, complemented with capacity building activities, to assist the ports to detect wildlife trafficking more efficiently. Moreover, the Project conducted Basic Wildlife Law Enforcement trainings in person and online with more than 670 participants, and likewise facilitated the development of a self-paced e-Learning course, with seven modules and 18 topics on IWT-related matters. The ability to share knowledge more efficiently is especially important considering the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the relatively high turnover of law enforcement personnel.
Chief of Wildlife Regulation Section, Wildlife Resources Division, DENR-BMB
The Philippines is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That means all import, export, and re-export of wildlife species, their by-products, and derivatives must go through a licensing system. More than 1,000 CITES permits are issued by DENR-BMB through labor-intensive manual processes each year. The CITES Secretariat has been encouraging parties to automate their procedures for improved and efficient control of trade.
eCITES PH is an electronic solution developed through the support of the DENR-ADB/GEF Project. It simplifies and automates permit processes and controls, with permits generated in three working days. It not only eases the burden of manual work but also increases transparency and eliminates opportunities for fraud and corruption. With the assistance of the Project, the three CITES Management Authorities in the Philippines—the DENR-BMB, the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR), and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD)—drafted the eCITES Masterplan, which now serves as a guide for the completion and full operationalization of the eCITES PH.
Project Manager, DENR-ADB/GEF project
Everyone has a role in combating IWT. A single individual, a single institution, or a single approach cannot address it. Multi-stakeholder engagement, multi-agency collaboration, and a multi-pronged approach are critical to making an impact.
That impact was also felt on social media. The #StopIllegalWildlifeTrade and #StopIWT CEPA campaigns aimed to reduce demand for illegal wildlife, by-products, and derivatives by raising awareness on the environmental and legal consequences of IWT. While the campaign garnered 108 traditional and social media hits reaching almost 51 million people, much still needs to be done in terms of raising public awareness. All stakeholders should use the developed knowledge products to continue work on combating IWT. These knowledge products won the “Most Useful Project Resources” award at the 2021 Global Wildlife Program Annual Conference, besting 36 projects in 31 countries across the world.
IWT Coordinator, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, ADB
With these achievements, it is hoped that initiatives combating IWT will continue and build on the results and baselines generated by the IWT-Project, not just in the Philippines, but also at the regional and international level. ADB already blazed the trail for this endeavor to become a reality, by assisting in the development of an IWT Project Map and Database, visualizing the counter-IWT project landscape worldwide, which was designed to strengthen coordination, guide funding, and inform project design. This work was underpinned by two reports; one on IWT at the Philippine-Southeast Asian Nexus, which has recommendations for the replication of successful counter-IWT activities in the Philippines, and another on Implications of a Wildlife Trade Ban, which expands the scope from illegal to legal wildlife trade under the frame of a OneHealth approach. To advance regional counter-IWT efforts further, ADB has been one of the partners involved in conducting initial consultations for a regional counter wildlife trafficking development partner coordination platform, an effort led by the World Bank, and we have offered to act as interim chair should such a platform be created. These commitments and alliances demonstrate that ADB treats IWT with the seriousness it deserves to safeguard our planet’s unique species and promote the wellbeing of people and wildlife alike.