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Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia

Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia

Chloe Hing

Year 1 LLB

National University of Singapore


International illegal wildlife trade is valued between a shocking US$5 billion and US$20 billion every year, and constitutes the world’s largest illegitimate business after narcotics. An estimated 25% of this trade takes place in South-East Asia (SEA).

The single largest reason for illegal wildlife trade in SEA is traditional medicine, where tiger bone, bear gall bladder, pangolin scales and rhinoceros horn are commonly used as ingredients. Other common reasons include exotic pet trade and food delicacies. The illegal wildlife trade industry has detrimental environmental effects, depleting endangered species, decreasing biodiversity, and impacting the future ability of exporting countries to profit from their natural resources.

Unfortunately, Singapore is at the center of illegal wildlife trade in SEA. It was once labelled as “notorious as a laundering port for illegal wildlife”, due to its importance as one of the largest transshipment centers in SEA and the world. The severity of this problem, and the centrality of Singapore’s role in it, calls for an examination of the effectiveness of legal instruments governing illegal wildlife trade.



The most significant international legal instrument governing illegal wildlife trade is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 183 countries are party to CITES and are obliged to implement national laws giving effect to provisions in the treaty. Singapore acceded to CITES with much reluctance in 1986, following mounting international pressure and a United States ban on wildlife and tropical aquarium fish imports from Singapore.

CITES operates through the issuance of permits for the trade of species whose conservation status is endangered by trade. These species are listed in three appendixes according to their level of endangerment, each with its own permit requirements. The first appendix, for example, consists of the most endangered species threatened with extinction, requiring both an import and export permit by the two parties. The second appendix consists of species that are less endangered but may be threatened with extinction unless trade is closely controlled, requiring only an export permit.

CITES is the first internationally-recognized framework for the regulation of illegal wildlife trade, and provides a strong platform for international cooperation to tackle a cross-border issue. The standardization of trading protocols for endangered wildlife also increases the ease of regulation and enforcement.


The main regional legal instrument is the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), which was implemented in 2005 as a regional solution to illegal wildlife trade. All ten SEA countries are party to it. To date, it is the largest regional law-enforcing entity in the world. ASEAN-WEN’s aim is to improve law enforcement networks across borders of SEA countries, by providing mechanisms for member countries to share intelligence and collaborate with one another.

ASEAN-WEN has been successful in tackling the pertinent problem of large wildlife trafficking syndicates operating across borders, as law enforcement authorities are able to collaborate across national borders more quickly and efficiently. In 2006, for example, a massive “shatoosh” (shawls made from the hair of critically-endangered Tibetan antelopes) syndicate spanning 3 countries was successfully uncovered and busted.

Being regional rather than international, ASEAN-WEN has the further advantage of enabling focused collaborative efforts, such as in information sharing and law enforcement, that would be difficult to carry out on an international scale. At the same time, its advantage over local legal instruments is its ability to allow countries to operate across borders, an essential ingredient in tackling an international cross-border problem like illegal wildlife trade.


Singapore’s primary legislation for regulating illegal wildlife trade is the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act (ESA). Imports and exports of scheduled species require a permit issued by Singapore authorities, while goods in transit require that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) be satisfied that valid CITES permits were obtained. The scheduling of species is in line with CITES appendixes one and two, and local permits are issued in compliance with CITES provisions.

The ESA addresses an important gap in CITES: a lack of provisions for transshipment of protected species. It deviates from standard CITES provisions regarding only the issuance of import and export permits to include regulations for transshipment. This is necessary because of Singapore’s position as a major global transshipment port. This is similar to how countries like Germany and Switzerland have also enacted local laws to regulate the transshipment of protected species.


There are several ways that CITES could be made more effective in achieving its aims. Firstly, it could impose restrictions on loopholes like “reservation clauses”. There has been overuse of these clauses, such as Japan’s holding of fourteen reservations in Appendix I species alone. Secondly, it could take a more determinative approach to induce countries to join CITES. For example, it could impose sanctions such as those successfully carried out in Singapore and Macau. Thirdly, it could increase regulations regarding the transshipment of protected species in addition to imports and exports, to make the legislation more comprehensive. Traders commonly use countries like Singapore for the storage of illegal wildlife before potential buyers can be found from countries with less rigorously-enforced CITES implementation laws.

There are also ways that ESA could be made more effective. Firstly, sentencing powers could be increased. Current sentencing powers (up to $5000 fine and one-year imprisonment for a first-time offence) are too low to serve as sufficient deterrence to traders. Secondly, the ESA could be more closely aligned with CITES regulations to ensure uniformity, avoid confusion and facilitate enforcement.

Finally, a more holistic approach could be adopted by all legislations. Firstly, the education of consumers and traders could reduce demand on the ground. For example, in Taiwan, awareness of conservation issues was successfully raised among the traditional Chinese medicine community and general public through advertisements and workshops. Secondly, incentive programs could be initiated to encourage traders to stop dealing with, or find substitutes for, illegal wildlife products. Such schemes have been successfully carried out in London and Hong Kong.


In conclusion, the international legal instrument CITES; the regional instrument ASEAN-WEN; and the local instrument, ESA provide a somewhat comprehensive approach to tackling the issue of illegal wildlife trade. They are able to work hand-in-hand to deal with the problem at different scales, as there is sufficient alignment in their goals and regulations.

However, improvements could be made to both CITES and ESA. An increase in the severity of punishments and strictness of regulations could increase the effectiveness of both legal instruments. CITES could be made more comprehensive by enhancing regulations on the transshipment of protected species in addition to imports and exports. ESA could also be more well-aligned with CITES regulations to improve uniformity and enforcement efficiency.

Lastly, all three legal instruments could tackle the problem from different angles. Rather than focusing solely on the issuance and compliance of permits, they could also consider other approaches such as incentives and education.


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