Deanna G. Donovan
From all indications, the trade in wildlife in Asia appears to be thriving despite the economic crisis that has plagued the region since 1997. Although statistics are poor, scientists estimate that the illegal trade in wildlife amounts to US$5-10 billion annually making this illicit trade third in value after the trade in arms and drugs (Lee 1995). Existing records indicate that the United States, Europe and Japan consume 60 per cent of the wild species for which trade figures exist. Statistics for the trade in natural medicines, an estimated 10 per cent of which contain wildlife products, clearly show that China is the major processor and exporter of such products. Anecdotal evidence and market surveys indicate that much of the wildlife and the products derived therefrom that are traded in China originate in Southeast Asia. One survey in Vietnam found the live specimens or products of 23 different species of mammals, more than 36 species of birds (6,000 individuals) and eleven species of reptiles for sale in one market in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) (Le 1995, 1998).
Of the 17 countries that, according to scientists, hold more than two-thirds of the planet’s biological wealth and diversity six are in Asia. With four new mammal species having been discovered or rediscovered in Southeast Asia since 1990, the importance of this region should not be underestimated (Rabinowitz 1997; Schaller 1998). However, the unchecked exploitation of forest plants and animals in formerly remote areas of Southeast Asia may threaten not only this valuable biological heritage, but in some cases the very cultures and economies that proper utilization of these resources could help sustain. Apprehensive about losing resources, both biological and financial, governments throughout the region have instituted regulations aimed at controlling this trade. Unfortunately these efforts to date have been only marginally effective and the drain on important natural resources continues apace (Donovan 1998).