ASIAN countries need to sharply ramp up collaboration on intelligence and enforcement to combat the escalating global illegal trade in wildlife and forest produce estimated at between US$50 billion (S$67 billion) and US$150 billion a year.
The impact of runaway wildlife poaching has been devastating for Asia, which is losing its biodiversity, delegates heard at a symposium, Towards Zero Poaching in Asia, involving experts and officials from 13 Asian countries.
Asia, in particular South-east Asia and southern China, has more species threatened with extinction than Africa, according to the United Nations'International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Every single large mammal in South-east Asia is critically endangered," said Kathmandu-based Dr A. Christy Williams, who runs the Asian rhino and elephant conservation programmes of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Not only are rare species like rhinos and tigers under threat, entire ecosystems are also being undermined.
In Thailand, gunbattles are common between forest protection rangers and poachers of increasingly rare rosewood trees, destined for the Chinese market.
The ant-eating pangolin, its meat considered a delicacy by Chinese consumers, is already extinct in southern China and its numbers in Laos are believed to have plunged by 90 per cent. In Indonesia, tens of tonnes of pangolins, intended for Vietnam and China, are confiscated regularly.
The four-day meeting, which ended yesterday, was aimed at jump-starting a new Asia-wide "zero poaching" initiative, using the example of Nepal's success in curbing rhino and tiger poaching.
The army helps to protect wildlife in the Himalayan country sandwiched between India and the huge Chinese market for wildlife products. Rhino horn is prized for its purported medicinal value. Demand in China and Vietnam has driven up prices, making it more expensive than gold and cocaine.
In 2002, during the 1996-2006 civil war in Nepal when soldiers were diverted to fight Maoist guerillas, 38 greater one-horned rhinos, as the species is known, were lost to poachers.
"It was a bitter experience," Lieutenant-Colonel Sanjaya Duja, commander of military forces in Chitwan National Park, where most of the rhinos are, told The Straits Times.
Nepal now has just over 530 rhinos. These days, some 2,000 soldiers are deployed in three wildlife parks to protect them. Nepal's efforts paid off and it celebrated "zero poaching" in 2011 and 2013.
"A country like Nepal with political challenges, economic challenges, and development challenges has shown it can be done," said Dr Williams.
Nepal recognised wildlife as a priority and a tourism industry cornerstone, and shared profits from wildlife parks with local communities near them, he added.
Mr James Compton, senior programme director for Asia for the wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, told the symposium that wildlife crime "is currently a high-profit, low-risk equation for wildlife criminals". The challenge is to reverse that, he said.
Enforcement agencies in South and South-east Asia are already escalating their efforts. Last Saturday, Malaysian police arrested a fugitive rhino poacher given 15 years' jail for killing 15 rhinos.
But critical gaps remain, experts said, such as the lack of a regional wildlife crime database, inadequate information sharing, and patchy field enforcement, investigation and prosecution.
In six of the 13 countries, the conviction rate for wildlife offences is about 5 per cent; only Indonesia, Malaysia, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand have a conviction rate of more than 50 per cent.
"Wildlife crime is recognised as a transnational crime," Dr David Lawson, a senior programme officer at WWF, said at the symposium. "We must start talking to each other; we must cooperate."