WARN: Grassroots NGO tackles wildlife trafficking in Asia


Scott Pursner, Want China Times

Date Published
The Wildlife Action Rescue Network, or WARN, aims to improve connections between wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers throughout East and Southeast Asia and provide them with support. It is the only organization of its kind working in the region and Taiwan’s own Pingtung Rescue Center for Endangered Wild Animals has had a large role in its creation and development.
“The first meeting held to talk about creating such a group was [in] 1997 in Pingtung,” said Dr Kurtis Pei, a professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Wildlife Conservation and the head of Taiwan’s largest wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center, the Pingtung Rescue Center for Endangered Wild Animals. He also now chairs the NGO.
The creation of the organization was extremely important, Pei said, adding that the East and Southeast Asia regions are currently the largest illicit markets for both the import and export of wild species.
The process for getting off the ground was slow, as 12 years passed between the organization’s first and second meeting and it was not until 2013 that it was recognized as an NGO in the Netherlands. The group, which saw Pei as the inaugural director, had initially tried to register in Bangkok. The request met with opposition from the Thai government as that same week Edwin Wiek, a Dutch conservationist running a conservation park in the suburbs of Bangkok, published a piece in the Bangkok Post about the official corruption in Thailand’s illegal elephant trade. This led to Wieks’s arrest and the confiscation of his animals, and also eliminated any chance that the group would be able to register there. When the Dutch government helped Wiek gain his freedom, the group decided to try and apply in Amsterdam.
Protected wildlife species are being smuggled in and out of Southeast Asia in higher numbers than at any time in the past, Pei said, adding that new wealth in China, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia has made the region not just a major exporter of illegal wildlife but a major importer as well. The markets for illegal animal imports in South Korea and Japan are sizeable too, Pei said. This had led to a need for greater coordination on the part of rescue centers and wildlife groups throughout the region.
One of the main goals for WARN is information sharing. Eventually, Pei hopes that his organization can analyze trends in the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia as well as pick out hot spots to focus on in the region.
The response to WARN has been largely positive. The group structure allows for both paying members and observers. There are 17 paying members representing rescue centers and conservation groups in Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, and South Korea and mainland China. There are also several observers representing India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand.
Pei said the governments of Malaysia and Vietnam have actively shown support for the network’s efforts. WARN has even been approached by ASEAN’s Wildlife Enforcement Network for consultation on certain issues. The US State Department-backed Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking has also contacted the group.
For the 2015 meeting, which will take place at the end of this year, WARN has sent out over 60 invitations to rescue centers, wildlife groups and related government agencies in the region. Pei was happy to report that most countries are now represented in the network, though they do not have any partners from Brunei, Myanmar or Bhutan as yet.
The interest in WARN is likely because it is just the second organization of its kind in the world, according to Pei. Another similar network exists in Africa but it has a different structure, he said, adding that since WARN is now an established NGO, many European organizations and even some North American organizations are looking at them as a potential model.
Since each member of WARN is an independent entity, coordination takes time and effort. Since its founding, the group has already set out a short-term plan. Immediately after being recognized, the group began drafting a set of guidelines to be followed on issues such as animal care, wildlife release and euthanasia and hope to have all guidelines put into a database in the near future. They are also in the process of creating working groups to discuss specific wildlife issues of concern for the Southeast and East Asia regions. Next year, WARN plans to begin coordinating specific technical teams that can visit member’s facilities in order to help them with specific issues they may be facing such as enrichment for captive wildlife.
WARN has also had to address vast differences in economy, population size and development. Pei stated that there is a big disparity in population size among countries in the area, which is why for final decisions, regardless of how many affiliates exist in each country, the group abides by a system of one country one vote. Furthermore, as financial and human resources available can vary greatly between members, there is no expectation that each group will have to have the exact same standards. As Pei put it, “the point is to help each other get better at what we are trying to accomplish, not criticize people shortcomings beyond their capabilities. The goal for our network is to work with each other and local government so that eventually we can help reign in and tackle important issues related to wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, trafficking, conservation and care.”
Both the US and the UK have already declared that the illegal wildlife trade is a national security issue, which makes the timing of WARN’s establishment quite fitting. As Pei puts it, the illegal wildlife trade, the illegal arms trade and the illegal drug trade are all run by organized crime and are all frequently seen operating side-by-side. This is already levying a heavy toll on global biodiversity. With that in mind, the work of Pei’s rescue center and regional allies hope to offer people a WARNing before it’s too late.