By 2050, Asia’s urban population will reach more than three billion people, which will require a significant increase in transportation and infrastructure. The Asian Development Bank estimates that in order to meet infrastructure development needs, the region would have to spend $8 trillion between 2012 and 2020, with a big part of it on roads, railways, and other linear infrastructure. Huge projects are already underway, from China’s Belt and Road Initiative to the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Trans-Asian Railway.
Long seen as a driver for improving economic conditions around the world, linear infrastructure also poses risks, particularly to the environment. This is especially true in Central Asia, where hot dry summers and cold snowy winters mean many animals must make extensive movements annually to find food and avoid inclement weather. Roads, railroads and other transportation corridors can act as significant barriers to the movement and survival of these highly mobile animals. The same roads and railways that are opening up areas previously "off the grid" to commerce and economic growth are also facilitating access to pristine and wildlife-rich areas. Consequently, the development of new roads can provide more opportunities for wildlife poaching.
The stunning growth in wildlife poaching and trade has happened so quickly that it is still not widely recognized. Illegal trade in wildlife is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime after drugs, counterfeit goods, and human trafficking. Southeast Asia, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, generates $8-$10 billion in illicit revenues per year, in part due to easy links to markets such as China, Indonesia, and India.
Wildlife traffickers rely heavily on logistics and modern infrastructure, taking advantage of new roads, ports, and airports to cross borders more quickly and easily. Similar to (and often linked with) other transnational organized crimes, the networks involved in wildlife crime span multiple countries over several continents, and criminals have developed elaborate ways of smuggling goods through major international airports, ports, and border crossings. High amounts of wildlife, dead or alive, are hidden in passengers' suitcases and clothing or mixed in with legal shipments.
Large seizures happen frequently. Earlier this month, for example, 21 horns from South African white rhinos, worth an estimated $5 million, were seized by authorities at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, Thailand. The horns had been smuggled from South Africa and transported to Thailand on a flight from Ethiopia. In a single month earlier this year, there were seizures of 14 tons of pangolin scales across different locations in Africa and China, an amount equivalent to roughly 20,000 pangolins. If poaching continues, the world will lose many species including iconic wildlife such as tigers, elephants, and rhinos – many of which have seen population declines of 50-90 percent or more in the last century.
This rising threat to the world’s natural capital requires action. At the policy level, countries must be encouraged to improve legislation aimed at ensuring that transportation infrastructure projects are planned in ways that do not significantly negatively impact wildlife. A recent study by the Convention on Migratory Species showed that few countries in the Central Asian region have any infrastructure laws or regulations that even mention wildlife. Even fewer have legislation that addresses the need to have infrastructure avoid significant negative impacts on wildlife or other aspects of the environment. International donor and lending institutions, all of whom have strong internal requirements related to biodiversity protection, should play an important role in pressing governments to improve their existing legislation and responsibly adhere to their existing requirements.
A number of steps can help address illegal cross-border movements. First, there needs to be improved collaboration and information exchange between agencies domestically. Second, similar steps are needed between law enforcement agencies such as customs in different countries. While mutual agreements between certain local customs agencies in countries such as Vietnam and China exist, more efforts are needed to strengthen collaboration and intercept criminals. Third, capacity must be built for the better management of border, port, and airport infrastructure. Inspection capacity at ports is telling. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that while maritime shipping contributes 90 percent of all trade globally, less than 2 percent of the 500-plus million containers are inspected.
The transport sector itself has an important role to play in helping to identify key routes and smuggling hotspots. In 2015, Prince William’s "United for Wildlife" initiative set up a Transport Task Force, bringing together representatives from a range of airlines, shipping companies, and a few non-governmental organizations to identify the main routes exploited by traffickers and take measures to ensure wildlife is no longer part of their operations. The members of the taskforce signed the Buckingham Palace Declaration in March 2016. The declaration focuses, among other things, on securing information sharing systems for the transport industry to receive credible information about high-risk routes and methods of transportation. These efforts could be expanded to include additional participants from the private sector.
Ultimately, the stakes extend well beyond the environment. Wildlife trafficking is a huge business and is driving species to extinction and accelerating the loss of biodiversity. It can also significantly impact local economies by reducing ecotourism opportunities and contributing to the spread of viruses and diseases. Wildlife trafficking also threatens security by providing funding to criminal and militant networks. New transportation infrastructure developments need to be funded, designed, and established with the understanding that additional resources must be directed towards minimizing direct impacts on biodiversity and building stronger enforcement capacity to control the growing illegal traffic in wildlife. For all these reasons, we cannot afford to wait.
Peter Zahler is the Regional Director of the Asia Program and the Director of Training and Capacity Building at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Louisa Denier is a Law and Policy Advisor for the Asia Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
This essay is part of our Big Questions series.