Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s rarest and most charismatic animals, but during the 20th century it has suffered more global extinctions of mammals and birds than any other continental area. The primary threat? Alongside habitat destruction, it’s snares.
Driven by a demand for illegal wildlife trade products, these cheap and indiscriminate traps are silencing the forests. Urgent action needs to be taken to put an end to it
This is what the snaring crisis looks like on the ground, and what needs to be done according to three conservationists.
“THERE WERE TIMES WE REMOVED THOUSANDS OF SNARES OVER A SEVEN-DAY PATROL TRIP”
When he started work with WWF-Vietnam in 2010, Protected Area Manager Luong Viet Hung spent much of his time in the forest piloting a community-based forest guard model focused on removing snares in the Central Annamites Landscape. Every month, he accompanied the teams for 15 days at a time in the forest, where he faced snares in daunting numbers. Often Hung and his team would find snares set along fences (drift-fences) which hunters build to funnel all animal movement towards their lethal snares.
“The drift fence was hundreds or thousands of meters long. I was shocked and upset to see so many dead bodies of wildlife on the traps. The other members had the same reaction; their faces were saddened.”
After a moment of silence, the team knew what they had to do. “Without exchanging a single word we took action, destroying the drift fence, collecting the wires, and recording the field data on our datasheet. There were times we removed thousands of snares over a seven day patrol trip.”
From 2011 to 2019, the community-based forest guard model removed and destroyed over 100,000 snares in just two nature reserves. In the short-term removing snares likely prevents some deaths. ,.
“Can you imagine what would have happened if these snares had not been removed and destroyed? Would 100,000 animals have been trapped and killed?”
However snares and often return and Hung points out the need for a more comprehensive approach to combat snaring.
“Poaching is not an independent activity, it is a chain consisting of many links including local communities, protection agencies, traders, restaurants, markets, consumers et cetera. To end poaching, we need a comprehensive solution promoting sustainable livelihoods to local communities and changing the behaviors and awareness surrounding wildlife hunting. We need to use community engagement to strengthen protected area management and wildlife trade.”
“THE LAST THING WE WANT TO DO IS KEEP WILD ANIMALS IN A CAGE”
Not all snared animals die. Nick Marx is the Director of the Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Rescue Care and Release Programme in Cambodia. He and his team have responded to countless calls of ensnared animals in need of urgent veterinary care; animals such as Chhouk, the orphaned elephant calf.
“Chhouk was tiny when he was found by a WWF patrol in Mondulkuri, Northeast Cambodia in 2007. He had been caught by a snare that caused severe injuries to one of his legs. We were called in to assist, and brought him down to the Phnom Tamao wildlife sanctuary.”
It was touch and go. At first they weren’t sure if the emaciated calf would survive.
“We did manage to get him better, then all that was left to do was address the problem of his missing leg. After contacting various prosthetics organisations, finally the Cambodian School for Prosthetics and Orthotics agreed to build a prosthetic leg for Chhouk. 13 years later, he is now on his 14th or 15th prosthetic.”
Chhouk is a lucky survivor, but he will remain in captivity for the rest of his life.
“The last thing we want to do is keep wild animals in a cage so we release everything we can, but this isn’t always possible – animals with three legs have very little chance of surviving in the forest.”
In the quest to combat the snaring crisis in Cambodia, the Wildlife Alliance is supporting a community forestry group on the edge of the Cardamom Rainforest Landscape who are on a desperate mission to protect a herd of the globally endangered banteng threatened by snares. It also employs staff who were once hunters, but now make a living protecting Cambodia’s wildlife.
“There are good people who want to protect their wildlife, and we need to support them. But there also needs to be action at government level with legislation and law enforcement put in place. If governments want to keep their wildlife, something has to be done now.”
“THIS IS NOT HOW I IMAGINED MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH A WILD MALAYAN TIGER WOULD BE.”
Mark Rayan Damaraj has been working on tiger conservation with WWF for 16 years, and now leads WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Conservation Programme. In 2009, WWF patrol teams discovered a tiger within the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex. It had been caught in a snare, but was still alive. Mark reached the snare site by late evening, and parked up on the road just 600 metres from where the tiger lay. They stood guard all night, waiting in case the poachers returned for the tiger. They did not.
At the break of dawn, the rescue operation sprung into action. Personnel from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks personnel tranquilised the tiger, and heaved it on to a stretcher.
“I had the privilege of getting close to the animal before it was tranquilised, but I will never forget the roars of anguish and the fear in its still menacing eyes. As the paw was released from the snare I could see the deep wound it had inflicted. The bone was visible. To see the king of the jungle reduced to this vulnerable state of suffering invoked a sense of disgust and shock in me.”
A week or so later, Mark was informed that the tiger had died. He says he felt numb on hearing the news.
“It took me a while to uplift my battered soul and regain motivation, but eventually I did and I vowed to give my best to protecting tigers.”
And Mark was not alone. In response to the crisis that caused the country’s tiger population to drop below 200 individuals from 500 in 2003, local communities joined WWF to flood the forest to remove snares and deter poachers. It was an urgent, stop-gap initiative nicknamed “Project Stampede”.
“We now have 75 indigenous anti-poaching personnel helping us remove snares and deter poachers in Belum Temengor Forest Complex. Last year only two active snares were detected, and the poachers who laid those two snares were eventually apprehended.”
“My conversations with indigenous people have taught me that the forest is inextricably linked to their lives. They regard tigers to be the guardian of the forest, and although they hunt some small mammals, certain primates and birds for consumption, they value and respect all wildlife so this indiscriminate, cruel snaring is seen as a vicious way of wiping out wildlife.”
The community patrols are already playing a huge role in making the forests safe for tigers. Active snare encounters have been reduced by 89%, but Mark believes everyone has a role to play in stopping poachers using snares, from indigenous communities and enforcement agencies to government and key decision makers.
“Malaysia needs more enforcement personnel to guard the forest. Efforts to work with communities to be part of the solution need to be explored and expedited. And ultimately, political will to prioritise efforts in reducing this threat need to be invoked so that in years to come we will still have wildlife in our forest.”
WWF urges governments in Southeast Asia to strengthen enforcement and legislation to act as an effective deterrent against snaring, and engage indigenous peoples and local communities as partners to stop this threat. Protected areas need more and better resourced patrols. In addition to reducing urban demand for wildlife meat, governments must also prevent the purchase, sale, transport and consumption of wildlife species which are of high risk for zoonotic disease transmission. This will include most of the ungulates and carnivores that are major targets for snaring.