The forests in Southeast Asia are being emptied of wildlife by a deadly threat: illegal snares.
These snares, which can be made cheaply and quickly out of rope, bicycle brake cables, or motorcycle wires, are being set at an alarming rate and are devastating the populations of ground and tree dwelling animals in the region. One poacher can set hundreds of snares in a single day, and as roads expand and motorcycles become more affordable, the reach of these snares also increases. More than 200,000 snares were removed from just five protected areas in Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2015, while almost 15,000 snares were found and disarmed in four protected areas in the Greater Mekong in 2019 alone. But these huge number represent just a small percentage of the snares that have actually been set, which is believed to be in the range of tens of millions of snares every year. One study, which compared two similar forest habitats in Southeast Asia, found that the impact of habitat degradation from logging was more detrimental to wildlife populations than snaring.
What makes these snares so pernicious is that they trap animals indiscriminately, killing and maiming many of the most endangered and threatened species in the region, even if they are not the primary target of the snares. For instance the dhole, a wild dog and one of Asia's rarest predators, has no commercial value but is being caught at alarming rates. Set to supply the illegal wildlife trade with bushmeat, furs and bones, these deadly snares cause wide-spread defaunation - large-scale removal of wild animals - in the forests of the Greater Mekong, an area that has suffered from more extinctions of mammals and birds in the 20th century than any other comparable continental area. And as the population of Southeast Asia and neighboring China has grown and become wealthier, the problem has become more and more acute.
More than 200,000 snares have been removed from just five protected areas in the region between 2010 and 2015. It's estimated that millions of snares can be set per year in just four countries - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Empty forests syndrome - a term that was first introduced in 1992 to describe forests of South America that had been emptied of large mammals due to human interference - is sadly becoming applicable to the state of forests in much of the Greater Mekong. With the recent realisation that the Indochinese Tiger and Leopard are extinct in Laos, and the listing of so many endemic species as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List, the impact of the snaring crisis is immense yet the conservation response is sadly limited.
Losing these species will not only mean a loss in biodiversity, but will also negatively affect the ecosystems on which humans depend. As animals that disperse seeds disappear, tree species will disappear as well, resulting in changes in structural characteristics and functions of the forests. Loss of apex predators will mean that some species thrive over others, creating an imbalance in the forests and leading to potentially faster extinction of certain prey and predator species.
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Urgent action must be taken to end the snaring crisis and save the endemic species of the Greater Mekong. Governments in the region must commit to investing resources into managing protected areas, and hire professional rangers to disarm snares and stop poaching. Wildlife crime must be treated as a serious crime by prosecutors and judges. The general public must express that saving the endemic species of Southeast Asia is a priority and pressure their representative governments to respond to the crisis. International organizations must pool their resources into protecting the animals that remain and use the limited resources available to create the biggest conservation impact.