Closing Policy and Information Gaps in Wildlife Protection

The Philippine pangolin—classified as threatened—continues to be hunted for its meat and scales. Here, one is reintroduced into the wild after being rescued. Photo credit: Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff.

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A study of Southeast Asian projects provides insights on how the Philippines can improve efforts to prevent illegal wildlife trade.


Illegal wildlife trade (IWT), including poaching and animal trafficking, is currently the fourth largest illegal trade globally—after arms, drugs, and human trafficking. Valued between $7 billion and $23 billion per year, the consequences of unsustainable, high-risk, and illegal wildlife trade can have dire implications not only for the survival of species and biodiversity but also for human health and the economy.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is the most recent and striking example of how unregulated wildlife trade can affect society. Over 70% of emerging infectious diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin. In legal and illegal wildlife markets, species are in close contact with each other and often processed under unhygienic conditions—drivers for interspecies transmission of pathogens. In the case of COVID-19, most scientists agree that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in horseshoe bats, but it is not clear whether it was directly transmitted or passed via intermediary species.  

While legal trade is partially regulated, IWT does not follow any animal welfare or health standards, amplifying the risks of disease outbreaks. If wildlife crime continues unabated, we risk the outbreak of another zoonotic disease.

Southeast Asia, known for its abundant biodiversity, is considered a hotspot for illegally traded wildlife and wildlife products. Responding to the severity of the situation in which countless traded species are at the brink of extinction, the number of initiatives combating IWT in the region has been increasing over the last decade.

However, only a strong alliance of countries and development partners coordinating their actions in a well-functioning and transboundary movement can combat the threat emanating from organized crime syndicates operating on a global scale. The Philippines is one of the countries that plays a key role in these endeavors as it is considered a source, transit, and destination country for IWT.


The number of confiscated wildlife in hotspots are especially concerning as they have been skyrocketing in the last decade. This is likely only the tip of the iceberg, with estimates showing not more than 10% of IWT is detected and confiscated. Legal wildlife trade can also contribute to this problem, since it is often used to launder wild-caught species under the cloak of legality. In addition, unregulated and high-risk legal wildlife trade can be an equally potent source of zoonotic diseases.

The Philippines has shown its resolve to counter these practices on several occasions, including the creation of a special task force dedicated to fighting IWT and the destruction of about five tons of seized elephant ivory in 2013 that had been smuggled into the country.

With 511 total seizures recorded between 2010 and 2019, the Philippines’ counter-IWT initiatives continue to face various challenges such as scarcity of resources, outdated environmental legislation, and lack of personnel and tools used by law enforcers. Irregular capacity building activities, such as trainings for government personnel, are not translating into greater law enforcement actions in many regions of the country.

To assist the Philippines in its fight against IWT, the Asian Development Bank commissioned a study assessing past and current projects that counter this illegal trade in Southeast Asia. The study aims to provide best practices and recommend measures the Philippines can implement, with emphasis on the value of regional collaboration.

Recommended Actions

Allocated to the six strategies (policy and system development; networking, coordination, and partnerships; capacity building; communication, education, and public awareness; improving governance, curbing corruption, and establishing structures; and reporting, monitoring and evaluation, research, and technologies) under the Philippine Wildlife Law Enforcement Action Plan, the following are among the actions recommended to help the country strengthen measures against IWT:

  • Conduct a feasibility study on cost-recovery mechanisms from IWT, using anti-money laundering legislation and restitution through asset seizures or freezing, penalties and fines, and re-investing these into conservation and law enforcement.
  • Explore adding a wildlife crime aspect to the tasks under the Trilateral Cooperation Declaration of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and formalizing this as a memorandum of understanding.
  • Develop additional agreements with law enforcement agencies of other countries to efficiently share information and strengthen cooperation and collaboration efforts.
  • Build the capacity of the judiciary, especially prosecutors and judges, on IWT matters through in-depth trainings using the results of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime Indicator Framework as a basis for addressing the gaps.
  • Set up a well-functioning 24/7 mobile phone hotline to report IWT and other wildlife-related incidents.
  • Explore the creation of a national wildlife crime intelligence information and intelligence exchange network, including a computer-based intelligence and case management system, to efficiently share information in real time among relevant stakeholders and coordinate the implementation of the Philippine Wildlife Law Enforcement Action Plan.
  • Register the genetic coding of wild and captive-bred species requiring particular protection in a DNA database to reduce the risk of illegally wild-caught species being laundered through legal trade.
The Illegal Wildlife Trade Project Map and Database

With the large amount of data produced from the study, the IWT Project Map and Database was created to provide information on counter-IWT projects in Southeast Asia and beyond. The database is embedded in the Illegal Wildlife Trade Projects website, sharing country best practices, acting as a repository for reports and handbooks, and providing links to other mapping tools, databases, and global initiatives.

The tool offers insights into project descriptions, implementation period, amount and type of funding, project sites, and donor and implementing agencies. Sharing this information could facilitate coordination among development partners, guide investment decisions, and inform the design of future counter-IWT projects.

Example of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Projects map showing information on the Combating Environmental Organized Crime in the Philippines project.

There is an ongoing endeavor to expand the database, covering more countries outside Southeast Asia. It is hoped that the tool can be institutionalized (e.g., a coordination platform for partners working on counter-IWT projects in the region). Consultations on this are currently being initiated and led by ADB, Global Wildlife Program (Global Environment Facility/World Bank), and World Wildlife Fund.

The data can be used for various analyses, such as the number of projects per country, donor funding and co-financing per country or region, target species protected, and type of interventions. This will give donors an opportunity to assess their funding strategies regarding counter-IWT investments and close identified gaps by allocating these scarce funds more efficiently.

Apart from the necessary investments and transboundary coordination, combating and eliminating IWT will require more sustained efforts as humanity recalibrates its relationship with nature. A good start to this is to recognize and follow the One Health approach by recognizing that animal, environmental, and human health are closely interlinked, and addressing the root causes of zoonotic diseases—with IWT being one of them.

Francesco Ricciardi
Senior Environment Specialist, Office of Safeguards, Asian Development Bank

Prior to joining ADB, Francesco Ricciardi worked for about 10 years as a researcher focusing on the impact of environmental contamination on natural ecosystems and wildlife. After leaving academia, he worked as an environment and ecology consultant in several projects around Asia, including renewable energy plants, large coastal infrastructures, and natural resources development and protection. He is a passionate underwater and wildlife photographer. Some of his photos have been published in international magazines and papers.

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Cecilia Fischer
Illegal Wildlife Trade Coordinator, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, Asian Development Bank

Cecilia Fischer is responsible for coordinating ADB’s commitment to combat illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. She is also a consultant for the World Bank, exploring the development of a regional coordination platform for donors and partners working on counter-IWT projects across Asia. She co-authored Philippine conservation action plans on marine turtles and dugongs, and has a certificate in Wildlife Forensic Sciences and Conservation.

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Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or its Board of Governors or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this publication and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. By making any designation of or reference to a particular territory or geographic area, or by using the term “country” in this document, ADB does not intend to make any judgments as to the legal or other status of any territory or area.