Poised to take over as Chair of ASEAN in 2014, Myanmar would be well served to address the region’s growing illegal wildlife trade. This is not only an environmental issue, but one with significant economic, security and health implications.

Myanmar has some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Its Northern Forest Complex is home to elephants, bears, leopards and hundreds of species of birds. And at the core of the forest lies the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary – the world’s largest tiger reserve.

Despite conservation efforts, reports suggest that a significant trade in wildlife exists, especially with Myanmar’s neighbours – China, Bangladesh, India, Lao PDR and Thailand – where animal parts are often trafficked and sold to be used in traditional Chinese medicine and decorative pieces. One study by TRAFFIC, an international non-government organization dedicated to monitoring the illegal wildlife trade, found that widespread distribution of big cat and bear parts are being openly traded in Myanmar border markets near China and Thailand.

Why is this a problem? From other countries, we know that wildlife crime destroys biodiversity and the services that healthy ecosystems provide. Illegal wildlife trade deprives governments of direct revenue from sales of state-managed natural resources and avoids indirect revenue from taxes on private sector exports. It prevents local communities obtaining sustainable livelihoods, with small-scale poachers receiving but a fraction of the value end-users pay. It can undermine national security because insurgent groups often support their activities via sales of contraband that includes wildlife. It also poses serious threats to health as the transport of wildlife products can spread disease.

The challenges are not unique to Myanmar, but occur across South-East Asia. Thailand and Vietnam, for example, came under scrutiny in March this year at a meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Thailand was criticized for failing to properly regulate its national ivory trade, with legal loopholes allowing imported foreign ivory to be passed off as a legal domestic product. Vietnam was told that rhino horn smuggling was increasing across its borders.

These issues are of serious international importance. African countries spend millions of dollars annually on protection efforts, while clashes with heavily armed militant groups cost dozens of rangers their lives each year. As a result, Thailand and Vietnam are now taking strong measures to address the crisis.

With greater openness, escalating regional demand from China and other ASEAN countries, the situation is likely to accelerate. With moves towards an ASEAN Economic Community, any inconsistencies in national laws or enforcement will see wildlife criminals moving to exploit the weakest nations in the bloc. The European Union established a common CITES framework when it was first formed that encompasses all its member states. ASEAN would benefit by adopting a similarly consistent approach to wildlife laws and enforcement.

As Myanmar assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 and plays a key role in leading the 10-member group towards economic integration, it should steer ASEAN to adopt a strong framework to stop the illegal wildlife trade.

Young Global Leaders Class of 2013

Authors: William Schaedla is Regional Director of TRAFFIC South-East Asia. Kala Mulqueeny is Principal Counsel at the Asian Development Bank and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader

 Image: A Burmese star tortoise climbing out of its shell REUTERS/STR New