Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
There are always two sides to a coin. While the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is creating some fears around the globe, it has had one positive impact in one aspect: it has restrained the illegal wildlife trade (IWT).
As the recent Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial puts it: “Covid-19 is prompting governments, particularly in Asia, to enact measures that will discourage or ban outright the illegal trade of wild and exotic animals believed to have been the source of the virus that originated in Wuhan, central China.”
Although there are some speculations as to the source of Covid-19 virus, the Department of Health (DOH) in its website said that animals are most likely the source of the novel coronavirus. “Coronavirus are a large family of viruses that are common in animals,” it explains. “At times, humans get infected with these viruses.”
The coronavirus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), for instance, was associated with civet cats, while Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus was identified with dromedary camels.
Initial findings, although inconclusive yet, have linked the virus to pangolin, a highly endangered scaly anteater with a size up to 100 centimeters. “The plight of pangolins uncovers potential threats to human health and well-being with experts linking it to the origins of the Covid-19,” said Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity.
In a public statement issued on its website, the South China Agricultural University said that they had found the genome sequence of the virus in pangolins, after testing more than 1,000 samples, “to be 99% identical” to that from the people infected with Covid-19.
Dr. Lim, a veterinarian, describes pangolins as “elusive, solitary and nocturnal mammals” which are “fully covered in scales to defend themselves from predators’ attacks.” “These creatures,” she says, “have earned the title “little guardians of the forests” as they help maintain the ecosystems’ unique and delicate balance.”
The Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that over one million pangolins have been poached since 2006. All eight species that inhabit Asia, including the Philippine pangolins, are on the verge of extinction.
“All are threatened with extinction due to poaching and international trade, which have been flourishing due to the unabated demand for its meat and scales,” Dr. Lim deplores. “Countries in Southeast Asia have been known as source, transit, and destination markets for wildlife like pangolins.”
Less population of pangolins may mean more diseases to come. “Since pangolins’ diet consists of ants, termites, and other insects, which could be vectors of diseases, the declining populations of these scaly anteaters can lead to more illnesses,” warned Dr. Lim.
Deputy speaker Loren Legarda echoed the same concern. “This ongoing public health crisis (created by Covid-19) is only one of the many that will beset us if we continue to ignore the warnings of scientists,” she said.
“If we continue on the path to a warming planet as we seem to be doing, we could use this crisis in three ways: as a test of our current coping mechanisms, as a drill for future crises, and as a wake-up call to the connection of this public health crisis to the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems on which we all depend,” pointed out the lone district of Antique representative.
In the Philippines, the value of IWT is estimated at $10 billion to $23 billion per year, according to a report from the Asian Development Bank, “Addressing the illegal wildlife trade in the Philippines.”
The huge amount “include revenue that should have been paid by illegal wildlife collectors and traders, the market value of resources involved, the ecological role of the wild-collected resources and the damage to their habitats incurred during poaching,” Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato told Philippine Star.
As such, IWT is not just an environmental crime. “This is more than just poaching, illegal collection and hunting of rare, exotic, endemic and endangered species and wildlife,” Sato stressed. “We strong believe that IWT is a transnational crime alongside illegal drugs, arms and human trafficking.”
Poaching occurs throughout the country, but the following sites are considered major poaching areas in the ADB report: Agusan del Norte, Aurora, Bukidnon, Bohol, Leyte, Mapun Island (located in the southwestern Sulu Sea), Nueva Ecija, Palawan, Pampanga, Quezon, Samar, and Turtle Islands (lie in the Sulu Sea).
In the ADB report, Mati, Davao Oriental has been listed as one of the transshipment points of wildlife in the country. Other areas mentioned in the report were Cavite (particularly Tanza, Rosario, and Bacoor), Batangas (Balayan and Calatagan), Lucena Port (in Quezon), San Jose (Occidental Mindoro), Matnog (Sorsogon), Allen Port (in Samar), and Madellin (Cebu), Liloan Port (Southern Leyte), Lipata Port (Surigao del Norte), Bacolod, and Dingalan (Aurora).
Davao City has been included in the list of major confiscation sites of wild fauna in Mindanao. Other cities on the same list were Cagayan de Oro, Pagadian, Surigao, and Zamboanga.
The following were also major confiscation sites of wild fauna: Batangas, Bulacan, Cavite, Cebu City, Metro Manila, Palawan, and Zambales.
Only two areas were considered major confiscation sites of wild flora: General Nakar in Quezon and Cabadbaran in Agusan del Norte.
According to the ADB report, Balut Island in Davao Occidental is the main entry point of wildlife from Indonesia. However, the primary transshipment points and confiscation sites of wild animals from Indonesia were General Santos City, Glan (Saranggani), Lipata (Surigao del Norte), and Metro Manila.
“The Philippines is one of the 18 mega-biodiverse countries of the world, containing two-thirds of the earth’s biodiversity and between 70% and 80% of the world’s plant and animal species,” said the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of the country profile of the Philippines.
“The Philippines ranks fifth in the number of plant species and maintains 5% of the world’s flora,” the CBD added. “Species endemism is very high, covering at least 25 genera of plants and 49% of terrestrial wildlife, while the country ranks fourth in bird endemism.”
When it comes to biodiversity and conservation, most people think of eastern Africa, the Amazonian rainforest, or Madagascar. But “on a per unit area basis, the Philippines probably harbors more diversity of life than any other country on the planet,” the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said on its website.
Unfortunately, the Philippines is also considered as “one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.” “This is because the Philippines continues to experience an alarming rate of destruction of these important resources brought about by overexploitation, deforestation, land degradation, climate change, and pollution, among others,” the BMB deplored.
Of the 207 identified species of terrestrial mammals, 42 species are considered threatened. At least 29 threatened species have been reported of the 419 reptiles found in the country. About 14 species of the 120 amphibians identified are also reported to be threatened.
Some 984 species of wild flora are threatened: 179 are critically endangered, 254 endangered, and 406 vulnerable. There are about 145 other threatened species.
A species is considered extinct when it is no longer found in the past 50 years. Endangered species are those that have been reduced in number to a critical level or whose habitats have been damaged or altered, or reduced.
Threatened is a general term used to describe the animal or plant species that could be in the status of “endangered” and “insufficiently known.” In the Philippines, among those listed as endangered as the Philippine eagle, Philippine tarsier, tamaraw, and waling-waling.
With 700 threatened species, the Philippines also makes it as “one of the top global conservation areas,” according to CBD. It added that the threats to biodiversity in the country “differ from one ecosystem to another.”
There are several threats to the country’s biodiversity, and IWT is one of them. From 2013 to 2018, the value of confiscated wildlife reached P184.9 million, based on data from the BMB, a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). “(The amounts) often do not include the values of ecosystem services that these animals provide, especially if they become extinct,” Dr. Lim deplored.
The ADB report listed the following as most traded species from the Philippines: Philippine forest turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Southeast Asian box turtle, Asian leaf turtle, Palawan pangolin, Blue-naped parrot, Palawan hill mynah, Tokay Gecko, Philippine slow loris, Philippine cockatoo, Giant golden-crowned flying fox, and Mindanao water monitor.
Other most traded flora and fauna are Visayan Tarictic hornbill, the Philippine serpent eagle, Brahminy kite, Luzon lowland scops owl, Philippine hanging parrot, Visayan spotted deer, Calamian deer, Philippine deer, Pitcher plants, Leopard cat, Rufous hornbill, Philippine tarsier, Philippine sailfin dragon, Philippine pit viper, Luzon red-tailed rat snake, Luzon bronzeback snake, Philippine flying dragon, and orchids.
The government has recognized the threats of IWT to the country’s biodiversity and economy that it has passed legislation and created inter-agency groups to combat IWT. It has also built capacity across the law enforcement chain.
Since 1992, the Philippines has been a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The 10-year national Wildlife Law Enforcement Action Plan (WildLEAP) 2018-2028 is aligned with the Philippine Strategy and Action Plan. “It serves as the national road map to address wildlife crimes and a guide to prioritizing enforcement activities, allocating funds and resources, and evaluating impacts of enforcement,” said the ADB report.
With the collaboration of key law enforcement agencies, national, regional, provincial and local government bodies, and civil society organizations, “WildLEAP will focus on stronger policies, networking and coordination, building capacity, communication, education and public awareness, improving governance and curbing corruption,” ADB said.
One million of the planet’s eight million species are threatened with extinction by humans, according to a report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services last year. The global rate of species extinction “is already tens to thousands of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years.”
Sandra Diaz, the co-author of the report and professor of ecology at the University of Cordoba, told CNN: “(There is) very little of the planet left that has not been significantly altered by us. We need to act as stewards for life on Earth.”
Meanwhile, Legarda urged Filipinos to help curb IWT. “We have ignored the laws of nature to our peril,” she said in a statement. “It is time to heed her warnings: do not eat what is not intended for human consumption, do not trade what should not be traded. We must relearn to coexist with animals and their habitats.”