A newly released report has sounded the alarm on the extensive wildlife trafficking occurring in the Sulu-Celebes Seas region, spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. 

The study, titled “Illegal Wildlife Trade: Baseline for Monitoring and Law Enforcement in the Sulu-Celebes Seas,” reveals a shocking volume of intercepted live animals and wildlife products, urging immediate action to address this critical issue.

According to the report, between June 2003 and September 2021, over 25,000 live animals and more than 120,000 tonnes of wildlife, parts, and plants were seized in the region. 

Serene Chng, Senior Programme Officer of TRAFFIC International Southeast Asia and co-author of the report, emphasized the significance of these numbers.

 “The sheer volume of hundreds of marine and terrestrial species poached and trafficked through these lesser-known seas is a wake-up call for action before it’s too late,” she stressed.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Chng further added, “Illegal trade severely affects marine resources in the area with marine turtles, giant clams, seahorses, and sharks and rays, in particular, seized in large quantities and frequently.”

The report also shed light on the significant role of online platforms in facilitating the illegal trade. From September to December 2021 alone, over 600 online posts were identified, trading in highly sought-after species such as turtles, pangolins, sharks, and rays. Rays, in particular, emerged as the most frequently offered species for sale online in the region, often stockpiled or sold through live-streaming sessions.

Another concerning finding revealed by the report is the substantial illegal trade in pangolins and live birds, with live birds accounting for 96% of all live animals seized in seaports within the area. 

Cecilia Fischer, WWF Wildlife Law Enforcement and Prosecution Officer, explained why illegal trade proliferates in the area.

“The rich biodiversity and strategic location of the Sulu-Celebes Seas region make this area difficult to patrol and significant as a source and conduit of illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia,” she said.

To address the multifaceted challenges posed by wildlife trafficking in the region, the report emphasizes the crucial role of inter-agency and transboundary cooperation. It calls for stronger communication channels, joint task forces, and practical operating procedures across agencies and borders. 

Chng expressed the importance of regional collaboration, stating, “We’re keen to see and support more of these joint efforts at the regional level between countries.”

The report concludes with a set of recommendations to combat wildlife trafficking effectively. These include increased vigilance at formal and informal landing sites, enhanced capacities of agencies in investigations, prosecution, and post-confiscation handling, and the use of traceability tools to tackle the trafficking of marine turtles, pangolins, sharks, and rays. Moreover, regulating the legal trade in sharks and rays is essential for curbing the illegal trade.

With funding from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and Freeland, the report’s findings are a result of the “Targeting Regional Investigations for Policing Opportunities & Development (TRIPOD)” project, aimed at combating wildlife trafficking in the region. Implemented from 2021 to 2023, the project focused on strengthening the capacities of law enforcement officials and relevant stakeholders in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.