Asia's Environmental Apocalypse 2019?

This year’s environmental news kicked off in grisly fashion: a Vietnamese poaching gang recording one of its members straddling and punching a snared and presumably dead tiger (the Thai authorities say they have caught the perpetrators) in one of Thailand’s protected areas.

Thailand has always seemed, to those in the conservation world, Southeast Asia’s last great hope for wild tigers and wildlife in general, which makes the news of a Vietnamese poaching gang active and beating on a dead tiger all the more distressing. But things can change fast. Nothing is really protected, nothing actually sacrosanct in the natural world, and this is especially true in Southeast Asia, where the bad news piles up fast -- not even two months into 2019.

The Malayan tiger subspecies is quickly being shown the door to extinction, according to a recent press release by the World Wildlife Foundation and tigers have already been wiped out from all of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). Talk of “tiger sightings” in Cambodia has become something of a joke, which a recent case highlights. In this case, a cow was supposedly mauled to death by a tiger, two of which had been “spotted” in previous days in the vicinity. However, the cow had no puncture wounds to the neck, which is what is usually seen in India when a tiger takes down a cow, or any other puncture wounds that would suggest that a great cat had got its fangs or claws into it.

Mostly likely the cow was hit by a truck, the owner hacked on the back a few times with a machete and was hoping for government compensation. An official remarked: “Commune police and village police will take turns guarding the place where the attack occurred in case the tiger returns for the cow. Our team will also guard the area that the tiger is often seen passing, and if it is found I don’t know whether it will be killed or not. I need to wait for orders from senior authorities.”

Is this the future for the world’s largest cat – rumors, nonsense, and myth? It is a depressing future for other animals as well Although 157 new Mekong species have been described to science since 2017 according to a Dec. 18, 2018 report in the Bangkok-based Nation daily, nearly all are at risk due to habitat loss and fragmentation, dam-building, and other development schemes, according to the report. Snakes in the Salween, falsetto-singing gibbons, and demon-faced bats are all at great risk, and the same is true, or even worse, beyond the Mekong Basin across the South China Sea in Borneo, where massive development projects threaten to obliterate one of the world’s last great rain forests. Ditto for Sumatra, although wildlife defenders there are fighting hard to remove snares in Gunung Leuser National Park.

It should be added, in a sigh of relief, that the last population of Javan rhinoceros in Ujung Kulon National Park on Java’s southwestern tip survived the recent Anak Krakatau volcanic eruption and tsunami unscathed, and conservationists have always feared that a large-scale eruption from this seismically volatile zone could simply erase the park from the map. The Sumatran rhino, however, is faring worse, and any remaining individuals in the wild in Kalimantan will probably have to be captured and translocated to larger populations in Sumatra.

It should be noted, however, that past efforts to capture and translocate Sumatran rhinoceros from the wild have ended in tragedy.

Deforestation in southern Laos is on the uptick after the tragic collapse of a dam in Attapeu province last year, while illegal logging continues to plague Myanmar and Cambodia; many illegal logging roads lead to China. A huge seizure of bear claws and sea turtles was recently made in Thailand, and perhaps worst of all, a Thai court has dismissed all charges against a Vietnamese illegal wildlife kingpin named Boonchai Bach, who was arrested just over a year ago in Thailand.

Boonchai Bach is thought to be one of the region’s most notorious wildlife traders and his release, for which the court cited a lack of evidence, is a tragedy for wildlife conservation in Africa – from which he was importing rhino horns and elephant tusks – and also in Southeast Asia. A court case against a rare black leopard-eating tycoon is still up in the air one year on. Thai park rangers are also finding themselves increasingly outgunned in the battle against forest criminals, and an attempt last week to smuggle a leopard cub out of Bangkok on a Thai Airways flight highlights the kingdom’s importance as a wildlife trading hub.

Cambodia has thrown some support behind Ben Davis and his family’s Betreed Adventures ecotourism and conservation program to protect the Phnom Tnout forest of Preah Vihear, which I had the pleasure of visiting a few years back, and Virachey National Park continues to support populations of clouded leopard, dhole, and other globally threatened and endangered species.

Pangolins, one of the most curious and cutest of the world’s creatures, are in serious trouble thanks largely to Chinese and Vietnamese demand for their scales. Uganda recently seized a US$8 million Asia-bound shipment of pangolin scales, while Vietnamese authorities just pounced on one of the largest African ivory and pangolin scale hauls in its history. Hong Kong just made another record bust of pangolin scales, these from Nigeria.

With wildlife becoming increasingly scarce in Southeast Asia, wildlife traders have had to turn to Africa and even South America (for jaguars, to replace the role of tigers, which have dwindled to such low numbers thanks to poaching for “traditional medicine”).

And if terrestrial Southeast Asian megafauna have it bad, the avifauna giants have it just as bad, or worse. The majestic Helmeted Hornbill is in rapid decline throughout its range, while Thailand launches an urgent effort to save the Great Hornbill from extinction. I have heard both of these birds call in the remaining jungles of Southeast Asia and the idea that some trinket collector would want their heads carved and mounted on his shelf is sickening.

Late last year Indonesia decided to remove five birds from its protected list (thanks largely to the pressure from bird traders), and the caged bird markets of Jakarta are sprawling and offer many endangered species for sale, often openly. On a positive note, Myanmar recently granted protected status to Nanthar Island, an important nesting site for the Critically Endangered Spoonbill Sandpiper, significant numbers of which fly all the way down from Russia to nest on this remote beach, where locals once hunted them.

2019 will be the year that sets the tone going into the next decade for wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia. It’s now or never. Are we going to allow the region’s remaining rhinoceros, elephants, tigers, orangutans, and other megafauna to go extinct and fade from memory, or will this last year of the decade be the one where both local grassroots organizations and the international conservation community go all-out to stop the poaching, deforestation, and predatory and extractive development projects that are endangering everything from Irrawaddy river dolphins to Indochinese leopards.

“Although a large proportion of the trees are dipterocarps, the Southeast Asian forests presents ‘an abundance and diversity of forms which are without parallel anywhere else in the world (Fisher; 43),” wrote Anthony Reid in his book Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, “including many economically valuable species. Even today, industrialization and a twentyfold increase in population have not succeeded in taming this forest as sixteenth-century Europe or China had done theirs.”

How things have changed since 1988. This region can now boast of what is probably the world’s highest deforestation rate, and the situation, according to recent research, is much worse than previously thought, with upland and primary forest areas also being converted to agriculture. Large swaths of remaining forest are also said to suffer from “empty forest syndrome,” with most medium and large-sized fauna having been poached out and some regions simply now “defaunated.”

And across the world (and mostly in the tropics) defenders of wildlife are being gunned down and persecuted for standing in the way of poachers and those with development interests, with 83 killed in 2018.

It’s not too late, yet. If you are interested in helping out, wildlife conservation groups such as Freeland (in Thailand), Wildlife Alliance (in Cambodia), Douc Langurs (in Vietnam), PRCF (throughout Southeast Asia), Habitat ID (my own group, with projects in Cambodia and Sumatra), and Birdlife (Asia), and Conservation International (Asia), FFI, WCS, and WWF are all fighting hard to protect and expand what remains of the natural world in Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, if you are interested in learning more about this region’s natural heritage and would like to help out by employing local guides and experiencing nature, ecotourism is a great option. Places like Phnom Tnout, Virachey National Park, and Cardamom Tented Camp in Cambodia rely on ecotourism to employ local people to work as guides and cooks and they lead the way in showing that a forest can be worth more standing than clear-cut. Hadabuan Hills in Sumatra is another such place, as is Nam Et-Phou Louey in Laos, and the Kinabatangan River basin in Sabah, Malaysia are other options. There are many more. Go out and see why scientists and explorers ever since Alfred Wallace have been raving about this region’s natural beauty. Hurry, though, because it could very well be gone soon.

Greg McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel