Early this year, when a report came that some wildlife animals were smuggled into the country through southern Mindanao, Rogelio Demelletes Jr. of the DENR Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) already prepared himself and flew immediately to Davao Oriental to resolve the situation there.
That single piece of information prompted the DENR to conduct months of surveillance which have led to a productive operation.
Enforcers from DENR and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) arrested two men in a forest at Barangay Dahican in Mati City for illegal possession and sale of wildlife. They were caught selling a bird to an officer who posed a buyer.
Thereupon, authorities have found that the smugglers stuffed their crates cages with approximately 450 animals, which includes various species of endangered birds, lizards, and mammals illegally caught from the forests of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
According to Demelletes, the animals were worth P50 million if sold in the local markets whereas the price could multiply by as much as five times in underground and black markets.
Philippines as a contributor to illegal wildlife trade
The Philippines contributes a lot in the illegal wildlife trade given that it has a strategic location and rich flora and fauna.
Aside from that, it is a source of indeginous and endangered species and is becoming a place for smuggled animals and their parts, that end up as pets, ingredients for traditional medicine, food, or ornaments.
What makes the Philippines an ideal transport location for stolen wildlife animals is because of its open boundaries and the lack of enforcement members that will operate effectively.
The animals were brought from neighboring countries in the South East Asia as well as from Africa and Europe, then will be shipped to countries like the United States, Japan, China, wherein the Philippines serves as a stopover.
Catching traffickers is now becoming difficult for the government as they are working faster and getting more knowledgeable in performing their trades.
“We are running against time,” Demelletes said, who works with the Philippine Operations Group on Ivory and Illegal Wildlife Trade (Pogi) task force.
“We cannot police the entire country. We lack manpower, resources, vehicles, assets, funds … And we know we cannot do it alone,” he added.
Illegal wildlife trade, not just a small venture
The challenges to Pogi increased as poverty forces the communities to poach for easy money. This is the reality that digs the need for survival against the fate of wildlife mistaken to be infinite in numbers.
According to the World Bank’s Global Wildlife Program, wildlife smuggling is considered the fourth most high-paying illegal business in the world, following narcotics, human trafficking, and firearms.
In the Philippines’ case, it is not just a small venture.
“We are losing $1 billion—or P50 billion—every year due to the illegal wildlife trade,” former head of DENR-BMB and now Asean Centre for Biodiversity Executive Director Theresa Mundita Lim said.
From 2013 to 2018, the value of confiscated wildlife reached P184.9 million, as DENR-BMB data show.
Lim said that this amount is based on the selling price in the market but is greatly conservative versus the actual value the country is losing, in biodiversity particularly.
“These [amounts] often do not include the values of ecosystem services that these animals provide, especially if they become extinct,” she said.
The Philippines is a biodiversity hotspot and is a center of endemism since it has a wide variety of indegenous wildlife not found anywhere else in the world. In fact, according to the assessment conducted by Biodiversity in 2016, about 47% of terrestrial animals here are endemic.
Another data from DENR and FishBase show that almost 110 million Filipinos are dependent on different ecosystems for their basic necessities, wherein the collapse even a single specie could create a domino effect.
For instance, it was reported in 2011 that an unexpected high demand for tokay gecko, or “tuko”, attracted the attention of the whole country as false information spread that it can be used to treat asthma, tuberculosis, and even acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
The vast search for tuko quickly lowered its population, though the reptile is not classified as endangered.
Lim pointed out the tuko craze concurred with the increase of recorded cases of dengue insects, which are included in the gecko’s diet.
“Everything is interconnected. If we don’t realize that now, it might be too late before we realize that some species have already been wiped out and human beings will soon follow suit,” she said.