A robust response to halt illegal wildlife trade in the Philippines

Two raptors and a water bird were rescued in January this year by wildlife enforcers in Baliwag, Bulacan from an alleged wildlife poacher. To the untrained eye, they are birds being kept and to be sold as regular pets. But the two crested serpent eagles and one white-breasted waterhen, possessed without a permit, are part of an illegal and growing market whose estimated value is P50 billion annually. This incident is just one of the numerous accounts of illegal wildlife trade (IWT) happening in the country.

The ongoing pandemic and the series of lockdowns have posed another challenge to enforcement. Criminal elements have taken advantage of this situation and have shifted to modern methods in conducting their illegal business using the internet — posting listings through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and then negotiating deals through private, encrypted messaging apps.

In addition, the country’s wildlife law enforcement community in recent years saw a rise in incidents of apprehensions of syndicated taking of wildlife in large quantities with international connection.

On a global level, IWT is now regarded as the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide behind only illegal drugs, arms, and human trafficking.

Since its enactment in 2001, Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act has yet to be amended to respond to the up-to-date and crafty tactics used by illegal wildlife traders. Our legal framework has to be updated, upgraded, and modernized to keep up with the changing landscape and technologies of IWT.

Despite legal limitations, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), with the help of other law enforcement agencies, civil society organizations, and a large community of advocates, had its fair share of triumphs. The efforts of our multi-agency partnerships under the Philippine Operations Group on Ivory and Illegal Wildlife Trade or POGI was recognized during the 5th Asia Environmental Awards by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for its achievements in addressing IWT and ivory trade in the country and combating trans-boundary environmental crimes, foremost of which was the arrest of Sharon Jonjon Lim, a notorious online wildlife trader who had eluded authorities for five years.

The agency has seen promising results from the beta-launch of WildALERT or the Wildlife Agency and Citizen Law Enforcement Reporting Tool, a mobile app we are developing to create a centralized system that will help DENR employees, our partners in law enforcement, and later on, private citizens to identify wildlife species, report illegal activities while in the field and to also monitor the status of wildlife crimes. The flora component of the app is under development, will be integrated to the main WildALERT system, and will be launched very soon.

With help from the Asian Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility, we developed a “self-paced" eTraining Course on Basic Wildlife Law Enforcement. This will allow our wildlife law enforcers and other stakeholders to take the course at their own time, pace, and space. DENR will pilot this as a specialized course under the Environment and Natural Resources Academy in September.

The government’s recently-concluded National Environmental Law Enforcement or NELE Summit yielded great opportunities for us. We adopted key resolutions against wildlife crimes and approved a strategic and responsive Action Plan. Our way forward is a more proactive, responsive, just, and sustained enforcement of our environmental laws through strong, accountable, and collaborative efforts of capable enforcers and stakeholders.

These successes and milestones over the years, coupled with continuous support from local governments and development partners, are part of our three-pronged strategy against illegal wildlife trade: strengthening of our legal frameworks, bolstering capacities across the full law enforcement chain, and reducing demand in the trade by raising awareness among the public.

But more has to be done.

To date, two pending bills in the Senate have been filed to address gaps in wildlife conservation and protection and to respond to the illegal wildlife trade crisis. Senate Bill Nos. 2078 and 2079, filed by Senators Cynthia Villar and Juan Miguel Zubiri respectively, aims to amend the 20-year-old Wildlife Act, and will strengthen wildlife conservation and protection mechanisms in the country. A counterpart measure is also being finalized by our champion legislators in the House of Representatives.

A strong legal framework will yield stronger enforcement critical to stopping those who traffic protected wildlife. It will also result to a more robust response to an increasingly sophisticated and transnational crime.

We must act now.

The DENR stands ready to work hand-in-hand with our legislators in amending the Wildlife Act. The Department also commits to intensifying its efforts to combat IWT, reverse its ecological damage, and ensure that the country’s natural resources are conserved for future generations.

Together, citizens and duty-bearers alike, can address this serious and growing threat head-on and build a sustainable future for the country and for young Filipinos.

We should remember that environmental stewardship is ultimately for our sake. The environment does not depend on us. The fact is, our species’ future survival depends on the environment.