Southeast Asia has experienced an explosion of e-commerce, social media, and digital services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Already home to 400 million users, 40 million more people in the region became consumers of digital services in 2020. This technological momentum shows no signs of slowing as digital penetration continues to rise. Online shopping alone is forecasted to reach $172 billion by 2025, more than double the amount in 2020. The rise of e-commerce brings opportunities for a diverse spread of sectors, both legal and illegal.
If not properly addressed, however, cybercrime could proliferate across the region. According to the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity, illegal wildlife trafficking is worth upwards of $2.5 billion a year, and cases are rising worldwide up to 7 percent annually. As COVID-19 restrictions ease in Southeast Asia, traffickers have the potential to exploit the opportunities presented by increased economic activity, digital services, and reopened borders to expand illegal wildlife trading, which threatens the future security and sustainability of the region’s ecosystem.
Reported cases of illegal wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia have decreased since the start of the pandemic due to border closures, travel restrictions, and trade suspensions. However, these figures ignore the number of products bought from online sources and shipped to sellers, stockpiled wildlife products, and decreased enforcement and record-keeping in 2020. As COVID-19 plunged 104 million people in Asia into extreme poverty, cases of illegal wildlife hunting and local trade amplified. Although online trafficking has been around for years, the number of wildlife products sold online in Southeast Asia has doubled since 2015, and the increase of online services is likely to rise through the region’s digital transformation.
Facebook’s ubiquity throughout Southeast Asia has spotlighted the platform as an online hub for illegal wildlife trafficking. In Indonesia, a country with a whopping 130 million social media users, Facebook is at the center of the ivory trade. According to monitoring data from TRAFFIC, between January and May 2021, Facebook removed 1,953 groups linked to prohibited wildlife sales in Indonesia and the Philippines the year before. From December 2019 to May 2020, more than 2,100 wild animals from 94 different species were on sale on Facebook in Myanmar, and those only include the accounts that were flagged.
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The digitalization of illegal wildlife trafficking has made combating crimes exponentially more difficult. Traffickers use online advertisements to expand and expedite the sales of illicit projects. Limited resources and increasing case numbers constrain efforts to fight cybercrime. Traffickers can protect their identities under layers of digital cover by using misleading account names, encrypted applications, multiple accounts, and secure virtual private networks (VPNs). Digital currencies and encrypted messaging additionally complicate efforts to trace transactions. Unless the identity of the traffickers is revealed, they can easily move on to other tactics and platforms to continue sales. An added problem is that digital platforms allow customers to easily find exotic products through social media search bars instead of in-person contacts. Once the purchases are made, they can then be shipped by mail in small pieces that make detection even more difficult.
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Wildlife traffickers in Southeast Asia often use cheap and effective equipment like wire snares that indiscriminately target and maim critically endangered species. Targeted wildlife, often taken from remote natural environments, are then sold to customers in urban populations, leaving local communities at risk of losing sources of nutrition. These practices worsen food security and deepen the economic disparity between rural and urban populations. The COVID-19 pandemic is also a prime example of how close contact with wildlife can have an adverse effect on human health. The majority of emerging infectious diseases, 75 percent, originate from animal species. The more contact that humans have with wild animals through trade and deforestation, the higher the chance of zoonotic diseases spreading to humans.
Although Southeast Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, it has more threatened species across almost every taxonomic group than anywhere else. ASEAN nations have embraced plans for green economies and infrastructure that work harmoniously with natural resources to combat climate change and bolster economic growth. These promises belie the disheartening reality that hundreds of species are projected to go extinct if current trends continue. Sustainable growth will become more challenging as ecosystems are stunted by wildlife destruction; Southeast Asia already experiences the world’s fastest rate of deforestation, and an increase of illegal wildlife trafficking undermines the region’s goals to protect its biodiversity.
Enforcement of laws against online wildlife trafficking has been reliant on policing by local NGOs and tech companies that monitor platforms for illegal sales. A key example is the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, a partnership of 47 companies, including social media giants, that have standardized their collaboration in finding and removing online support of wildlife trafficking. Social media and e-commerce companies have begun to give more attention to this issue. For example, Instagram and Alibaba are adding automatic pop-ups for users searching for hashtags related to illegal wildlife trafficking. Law enforcement must create long-term and sustainable strategies for combating such cybercrime. Greater inter-regional enforcement and research are needed from agencies such as the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network and external funding like USAID’s Wildlife Asia, a $24.5 million initiative to counter the illegal trade.
The Biden administration has made clear its intention to tackle the climate crisis with sustainable solutions. Environmental conservation efforts and green strategies are incomplete without any meaningful steps to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking and the vulnerabilities presented by the industry’s nascent digitalization. Furthermore, funding support from the United States to combat illicit wildlife trafficking will help support national security for Southeast Asian nations by eliminating revenue sources for organized crime. Illegal wildlife trafficking has been utilized as a funding source for other illicit activities in Southeast Asia, including smuggling, trade fraud, corruption, and money laundering. The 2021 Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking (END) Act delineates eight Southeast Asian nations as fundamental to the United States’ efforts to counter global illegal wildlife trafficking: Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is poised for a disastrous expansion as countries in Southeast Asia begin to reopen their borders again and attract international tourists. Studies show areas home to increased trade, tourism, and labor in Southeast Asia have become hotspots for trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a warning about the potential of wildlife trafficking to increase as Southeast Asian economies invest in attracting more tourists, trade, commerce, and travel. Southeast Asia and the United States should use this window of opportunity before economies fully reopen to address the challenges posed by digital illegal wildlife trafficking before it further exacerbates food, national, and ecological security challenges.
This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.