John Paolo J. Bencito | Reporter
The Philippines is indeed blessed with its highly-diverse portfolio of flora and fauna that dots its prospered shores. However, the survival and ultimate demise of many treasured creatures, like the Philippine Pangolin or ‘Balintong’, an endemic anteater native to Palawan – depend on how well the government is responsive to address the long-standing issue.
Like anywhere in the world, illegal wildlife trade here in the Philippines and in ASEAN is a well-oiled machinery, similar to the illegal drug trade. It is difficult to stop completely, but at we should initiate moves from our group and make a difference.
Just last year, a Chinese boat that crashed into a protected coral reef in the Philippines was hiding the remains of a second environmental disaster in its hold: thousands of illegally killed pangolins, a scaly anteater prized for its meat and scales in China.
The vessel hit an atoll on 8 April 2013 at the Tubbataha national marine park, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site on Palawan that was also struck by a US minesweeper in January that same year. Philippine Coast Guard Spokesman Armand Balilo said that about 400 boxes, totalling over 10 tonnes of frozen pangolins, were discovered during a second inspection of the boat later that week.
The Philippines and the ASEAN region has long been targeted by illegal wildlife traders as a hotspot in the lucrative, multibillion dollar global trade of wildlife, in which both live and processed goods of most species are traded, ranging from eagles and elephants to rare orchids and indigenous medicinal herbs, from raremarine species to endemic reptiles and songbirds.
According to Rolando A. Inciong of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, the illegal trade has esoteric economic implications for the region, involving broad and complex networks of sourcing and marketing. It engages a diverse range of actors including rural harvesters, professional hunters, and an array of traders from wholesalers to retailers, up to the final consumers.
While all ASEAN Member States are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the poaching, trafficking and illegal consumption of wildlife parts and products remain rampant. The scale of illegal wildlife trade is alarming. Due to the illicit nature of the trade, it has been hard to obtain exact figures, but experts estimate the value of illegal wildlife trade at USD10 to 20 billion annually.
“The pangolin is the most heavily traded exotic mammal.”The ASEAN- Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN)cites that“If trends continue, scientists predict that 13 to 42 per cent of the region’sanimal and plant species could be wiped out this century. At least half of those losses would representglobal extinctions.” That number include pangolins.
The World Bank highlighted the devastating effects that the illegal trade and exploitation of wild animals and plants are having on Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. “There has been a drastic decline in the Malayan Pangolin (Manisculionensis) which is endemic to Palawan province wherein the said species is known to be illegally traded as evident from the records of the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), Provincial and City Prosecutor’s Office, Legal Services of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD); and, as reported by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).”
This collection pressure, along with the destruction of natural habitat/forest is the principal factor affecting species’ survival in the wild. The Philippine government has national and local legislations/policies being enforced addressing the above-said issue. In the national scale, Republic Act 9147 (RA 9147), otherwise known as the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, has become the general guiding policy for the conservation, protection and sustainable management of wildlife resources including the Malayan Pangolin.
However, even if the legislations, policies and initiatives of the Palawan Provincial Government and the National Gov’t were to be put onto place, the protection and conservation of wildlife resources, illegal trading on wildlife still goes on. Thus all factors affecting the situation, especially on Malayan Pangolin, were identified and corresponding remedies and solutions were recommended.
Relevant Philippine legislations on the protection and conservation of wildlife resources; by reviewing the implementation of RA 9147 and PCSDS’ initiatives and programs; and, analyzing the records from the enforcement and agencies concerned are all lacking grip, just like the toothless Palawan Pangolin.
In the proceedings of the ‘Workshop on Trade and Conservation of Pangolins Native to South and Southeast Asia’ in 2008, policy studies on Pangolin trade pointed that 1) there are no financial allocation given by the government on the protection of Pangolins in the wild; 2) there is weak or dysfunctionalmanner in the enforcement of the already weak laws; 3) insufficient technical capability by implementing agencies; and, 4) population in the wild unknown.
Despite thebanning of pangolin trade since 2002, the appetite of Chinese consumers for its meat, prized as a delicacy, and its scales, believed to benefit breast-feeding mothers, has virtually wiped out the poor creatures in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Chris Shepherd, an expert at wildlife trade group Traffic based in Malaysia, told the Guardian: “There is no way a slow-breeding species like the pangolin can withstand this huge pressure for long.” He said the enforcement of laws had not kept pace with demand for the pangolin meat and scales, which can fetch hundreds of dollars per kilogram in China: “We have seen a really obscene amount of seizures but very few people are arrested and even fewer convicted.”
The 12 Chinese crewmen from the wrecked vessel are being held on charges of poaching and attempted bribery, said AdelinaVillena, Tubbataha Reef Wildlife Park legal counsel, and face further charges, including damaging coral reef and possessing pangolin meat. Tubbataha reef is a marine sanctuary and popular diving destination 640km south-west of Manila and had already been damaged by a US navy ship that got stuck in January and had to be dismantled.
The Philippine military quoted the poachers as saying they accidentally wandered into Philippine waters from Malaysia. The Chinese poachers face up to 12 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $300,000 (£196,000) for the poaching charge alone. For possessing pangolin meat, they can be imprisoned up to six years and fined, Villena said.
The Philippine pangolin haul is one of the largest on record. In 2010, 7.8 tons of frozen pangolin and 1.8 tons of scales were seized from a fishing vessel by customs officers in Guangdong, China, while a series of customs seizures in Vietnam in 2008 yielded 23 tons of frozen pangolins in a week.
The International Union of Conservation of Nature said rising demand for pangolins, mostly from mainland China, and lax laws are wiping out the unique toothless anteaters from their forest habitat in Southeast Asia.
The animals are protected by laws in many Asian nations, and an international ban on their trade has been in effect since 2002. But these measures have had little impact on the illicit trade, the IUCN said.
As for the case of the twelve Chinese poachers, will justice be served?