copy the linklink copied!1. Introduction

The chapter introduces the topic of illegal wildlife trade in the Southeast Asia, providing the purpose and methodology of this report.


Southeast Asia plays an important source and gateway role in the global illegal wildlife trade. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)1 countries account for under 3% of the world’s land mass and 8% of the global population, but the region is estimated to account for 25% of the global illegal wildlife trade (Lin, 2005[1]). Within the region, illegally traded wildlife is consumed, transhipped, processed, refined and sold. Open marketplaces for illegal wildlife continue to flourish due to gaps in regulations, legal loopholes, smuggling and corruption. Southeast Asia is also an entryway to China, the world’s largest consumer market for illegal wildlife products, and other consumer countries in Asia including Japan (UNODC, 2013[2]).

Criminal networks are at the heart of the illegal wildlife trade throughout the region. Using highly developed trade infrastructure and strong integration into the global economy. Organized criminal groups leverage loosely affiliated networks of familial ties, corrupt officials and intimidation of publicly registered companies to buy, sell, poach and export illegal wildlife without detection. They may use major airports and seaports as hubs for globally sourced illegal wildlife from Africa, Europe and the Americas, but also smaller and more disperse landing spots. The borders of countries with many islands are difficult to monitor and control, which facilitates transit of both domestic and internationally sourced illegal wildlife and wildlife products. Proceeds of wildlife crimes flow through the global financial system, with profits placed and layered into the bank accounts and properties of criminal enterprises, often with the intention of re-financing the next hunt, bribe or transport arrangement of endangered species.

There is broad consensus among the international community of the negative effects of the illegal wildlife trade and that efforts to combat smuggling, trade fraud, corruption and money laundering are key measures that governments could enact to limit or deter these crimes. After decades of increases in poaching, habitat loss and illegal consumption, many species are threatened with extinction. Public awareness of the plight of iconic species such as the African Elephant and the Black Rhino is relatively high, yet numerous Asian species are also prey to illegal wildlife markets. In Southeast Asia, the Asian Elephant population has declined by 50% over the past century. The four species of Asian pangolins are now among most poached animals in the world2 (Jani Actman, 2016[3]). Southeast Asian birds such as the helmeted hornbill are now listed as critically endangered due to the popularity of their carved skulls (National Geographic, 2018[4]). Among Asian rhinos, the Sumatra and Java are critically endangered, numbering fewer than 80 and 70 in the wild, respectively (WWF, 2019[5]).

Illegal wildlife trade is inherently unsustainable. The illegal taking, killing and trading in endangered species damages biodiversity, which in turn affects the prospects of long-term, sustainable economic development. The commercial-scale depletion of ecosystems is likely to create long-term pressure on agricultural outputs, forestry practises, and food security. According to the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, “biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are deteriorating worldwide”, posing a long-term threat to humanity’s wellbeing (IPBES, 2019[6]) .

The illegal sale of wildlife products fuels a multi-billion dollar criminal market (UNODC, 2014[7]). In Southeast Asia, networks of opportunistic actors are involved in multi-tonne, multi-million dollar shipments of illegal wildlife trade products, many of which are sourced in, transit through, or consumed within the focus countries in this report. Criminal enterprises use bribery and intimidation, complex logistics structures and networks of criminal actors to ensure that goods make their way to points of sale. Proceeds of crime derived from illegal wildlife trade is laundered into the global financial system. Throughout the region, these actions undermine the rule of law, and affect access to justice and integrity of public sectors.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize poaching and trafficking as a global risk. SDG Target 15.7 urges countries to “Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products” (UN, 2018[8]). The indicator for SDG 15.7 is the “Proportion of traded wildlife that was poached or illicitly trafficked”, meaning that the immediate objective of this SDG is to see a net reduction of the scale of illegal wildlife products and live specimens to directly address this pressing challenge. SDG 16, seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (UN, 2018[8]). Illegal wildlife trade (IWT) prevents the achievement of several goals and targets under SDG 16, namely the reduction in illicit financial flows (SDG 16.4); the reduction of corruption and bribery (16.5); effective and transparent institutions (16.6) and more broadly speaking, rule of law at the national and international levels (SDG 16.3) (UN, 2018[8]).

Southeast Asia should be a high priority region for international efforts to address the illegal wildlife trade. It is a hotspot for the sale and consumption of illegal wildlife for hundreds of domestic endangered species such as the tiger, the Sumatran orangutan, the helmeted hornbill bird and the Sumatran rhino, which are on the path to extinction in the wild. Despite this, discussions on reduction of the illegal wildlife trade, particularly in the international arena, often focus on the reduction of poaching and trafficking across source and transit countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, there is relatively less global attention paid to the dynamics, drivers and institutional gaps that facilitate Southeast Asian marketplaces and reinforce the networks between sources in Africa and consumption in Asia.

This report details the findings of research conducted throughout 2018, documenting evidence collected from field interviews, desk research and data collection on institutional capacities to counter illegal wildlife trade. This study focused on four countries: Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. The OECD undertook this project to further increase global action against this “low-risk, high reward” (OECD, 2016[9]) crime with the aim to enhance awareness of the risks, facilitators and gaps that enable illegal wildlife trade in the region. The analysis in this report lead to recommendations on tackling specific enablers of wildlife crime, including corruption, money laundering, and gaps in legislation and enforcement.

This OECD report is the second of a series on illicit trade focusing on the illegal wildlife trade. In 2018, the OECD published “Strengthening Governance and Reducing Corruption Risks to Tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade: Lessons from East and Southern Africa”. The first report drew lessons from country studies conducted in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Building upon the findings of this first phase of research, the current report similarly presents an assessment and recommendations to reduce or deter the illegal wildlife trade in the Southeast Asia region.

The report also builds on previous OECD work conducted under the auspices of the Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade (TF-CIT), which has served as a platform for countries to share experience on combatting all forms of illicit trade, including the illegal wildlife trade. The 2016 OECD report ‘Illicit Trade: Converging Criminal Networks’ presented a dedicated chapter on illegal wildlife trade, focusing on trafficking trends in sub-Saharan Africa, outlining key hot spots and hubs for illegal trafficking flows (OECD, 2016[9]). For the research and analysis on corruption, this report draws upon the work of the OECD Integrity Forum, which held a specific session on illegal wildlife trade in 2016 and 2017. Most recently, the 2018 OECD report ‘Governance Frameworks to Counter Illicit Trade’ highlighted the institutional gaps facing governments in efforts to penalise illicit trade, with a dedicated study of illegal wildlife trade and the penalties, sanctions and national strategies of governments to address it. In an overview of select economies, it found that such crimes are typically penalised through relatively light sentences, with little pursuit of charges for associated crimes, like corruption or money laundering (OECD, 2018[10]).

As highlighted in the recommendations of this report, the scourge of illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia calls for stronger support from the international community to respond to an international crisis. This means stronger support for centres of government and for governance. The OECD is well placed to take this work forward thanks its extensive policy and knowledge community. For example, the OECD offers practical support to strengthen the public governance practices that are pre-requisites for effective SDG implementation (OECD, 2019[11]). The OECD’s Observatory on Public Sector Innovation can be mobilized towards the achievement of increased efficiency and effectiveness of processes to adapt and innovate in response to intractable challenges (OECD, 2019[11]). The OECD Best Practices for Performance Budgeting highlights another area where governments can benefit from OECD’s toolkits for managing and maintaining efficient budgets tied to outcomes (OECD, 2019[12]). Finally, the OECD’s range of work on anti-corruption in the public sector, namely the OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity, can offer tailored approaches to analysing and addressing corruption risks facing competent authorities, offering strategic and sustainable response to corruption and integrity (OECD, 2019[13]).

copy the linklink copied!Purpose of the report

The aim of this report is to provide a clearer understanding of the state of play and enabling dynamics of illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, and to identify the gaps in institutional capacities that enable wildlife crime to persist within Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. It offers a snapshot of wildlife crime and the institutional responses to illegal wildlife trade in the four focus countries, provides a structured overview of how each country approaches this challenge, and draws common lessons from their experiences. The report highlights key areas of vulnerability at the end of the illegal wildlife trade supply chain as the products make their way to end-users.

This report is one of only a few that has looked closely at illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, and among even fewer that addresses issues such as the institutional responses to corruption risks and money laundering. The comprehensive approach adopted within this report also reflects the governance issues of concern to the OECD Public Governance Committee, reflecting the spirit of the OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity. The focus of the report on institutional and governance aspects aligns with the broader mandate of the OECD, in the public governance arena, to provide support and recommendations on governance and implementation gaps.

This report and the analysis herein is directed primarily towards governments to strengthen institutional capacities to counter illegal wildlife trade, corruption risks and illicit financial flows. The findings will be useful to a number of government agencies and administrations, including CITES Management Authorities, National Police, Customs, Financial Intelligence Units and Anti-Corruption Agencies (many of which have been interviewed and studied in this report). The recommendations contained in this report are also useful to non-governmental organisations who implement donor programming and substantive support to governments, as well as donor agencies for future illegal wildlife trade programming, strategic reviews and capacity building for joint-responses to common threats.

The findings of this report complement findings from existing initiatives to deepen the understanding of the illegal wildlife trade. Policymakers, NGOs, intergovernmental organisations and the wider academic audience are encouraged to discuss these recommendations in international fora and to apply these recommendations in response to the risks present in relation to illegal wildlife trade.

copy the linklink copied!Methodology

The OECD has relied upon a select group of respondents and experts to review the methodology and findings in an effort to ensure that lessons from anonymised cases remain reflected in this report, and to ensure that the reporting on these and other sources are accurate.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) provides the international legal basis for signatory parties to regulate trade in wildlife in a common manner. Implementation of CITES in national legislation, however, varies among signatories. As such, trade in a certain species can be legal in one country and illegal under CITES – or, by contrast, prohibited under national law and permitted under CITES. Consequently, the international community lacks a universally accepted definition of illegal wildlife trade, and interpretations of the scope vary3.

For clarity the report adopts a clear definition of illegal wildlife trade as trade in wildlife or wildlife parts that violates either international legal frameworks or the legislation of one or several of the countries through which a wildlife product has passed. This definition thereby encompasses both domestic laws and CITES regulations. From this perspective, the term illegal wildlife trade is conceived more narrowly than ‘wildlife crime’, excluding illegal grazing and encroachment, among other criminal activities. It focuses on the illegal taking or trade in wild species of flora and fauna, which excludes illegal fishing and logging.

Semi-Structured Interviews

The OECD research team carried out 40 semi-structured interviews in 2018 with 94 individuals across the four focus countries. Interviews occurred primarily in face-to-face meetings in the Southeast Asian countries. Interviews engaged government officials (42%), non-governmental organisation (NGO) and independent conservation, anti-poaching and -trafficking practitioners (20%), experts based in foreign delegations (17%), experts within international organizations (13%), and independent experts (8%). Government agencies interviewed included:

  • CITES management authorities (inclusive of wildlife management and anti-poaching authorities)

  • Customs administrations

  • Anti-corruption authorities and corruption prevention bureaus

  • Offices for public prosecutors / Attorneys General

  • Financial intelligence units or anti-money laundering officers

  • National Police

copy the linklink copied!
Figure 1.1. Multi-stakeholder interviews by type
Across Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Viet Nam
Figure 1.1. Multi-stakeholder interviews by type

Interviews were conducted on a semi-structured basis, using a standard questionnaire to maximize the comparability of information gathered (see Annex I). The authors designed the questionnaire to target knowledge gaps identified in the desk research phase of the project including topics such as the role of corruption in the illegal wildlife trade that are not heavily covered in existing literature. Interviewees who requested not to be identified are referenced in this report through anonymised references.

The interviews gathered key insights into the everyday workings of the counter-wildlife trafficking systems and its vulnerabilities from trusted law-enforcement practitioners and conservationists active on the frontline. In analysing responses, researchers corroborated findings to cross-reference information with secondary and tertiary sources. Throughout, the analytical approach taken was both inductive and deductive. In the former case, researchers sought to draw outward from individual instances and cases of illegal wildlife trade to identify broader patterns. In the latter case, researchers looked to reason inward to the specifics from postulates about the nature of organised criminality in each location.

In some cases, the report omits specific detailed information to protect respondents and avoid compromising ongoing investigations or sources of sensitive information. However, the report draws out the broader trends and the specific implications of these responses. Where possible, footnotes linking to media and secondary sources support the information obtained from interviews.

Desk Research and Open Source Media Mapping

In addition to the semi-structured interviews, the OECD conducted preparatory desk research to inform the survey design, and to provide contextual background, statistics and historical findings on the topics of relevance in this report. The OECD used the findings from the desk research to corroborate several of the findings from the interviews throughout this report.

For the research undertaken on anti-corruption, a literature review and open media mapping was undertaken through a stocktaking of all relevant published literature, including public documents produced by international organisations, NGOs and governments. The literature review included academic papers and other relevant reports, such as briefings by domestic authorities and international declarations (i.e. reports to CITES, etc.). Twenty reports with direct relevance to anti-corruption were noted in relation to the countries or the region of study. The results of these findings are further elaborated in the chapter on the linkages between corruption and illegal wildlife trade in the region.

The report includes an open source media mapping to provide evidence of the trends on corruption in the region. The media mapping exercise was conducted with targeted word-string searches in English, French and Spanish. Searches covered the word ‘ivory’ AND (‘poaching’ OR ‘seizure’ OR ‘trial’ OR ‘fraud’ OR ‘accused’ OR ‘crime’ OR ‘arrested’ OR ‘guilty’ OR ‘jail’ OR ‘suspect’ OR ‘bribery’ OR ‘laundering’ OR ‘corrupt’). Over 300 corruption cases were reviewed from 2008-2017, on a global scale. Of the total reported cases, 17 were specific to the four countries of focus. Six occurred in Thailand, seven in Viet Nam, and three in Indonesia.


[14] FWS, U. (2019), Illegal Wildlife Trade,

[6] IPBES (2019), Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, (accessed on 13 May 2019).

[3] Jani Actman (2016), Poaching May Drive These 7 Species to Extinction, (accessed on 23 January 2019).

[1] Lin, J. (2005), TACKLING SOUTHEAST ASIA’S ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE, (accessed on 22 January 2019).

[4] National Geographic (2018), Poached for Its Horn, This Rare Bird Struggles to Survive, (accessed on 9 January 2019).

[13] OECD (2019), Anti-corruption and integrity in the public sector,

[12] OECD (2019), OECD Good Practices for Performance Budgeting, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[11] OECD (2019), OECD Observatory for Public Sector Innovation: Our Work,

[10] OECD (2018), Governance Frameworks to Counter Illicit Trade, Illicit Trade, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[9] OECD (2016), “Illicit Trade: Converging Criminal Networks”, OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies,

[8] UN (2018), Global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, (accessed on 30 April 2019).

[7] UNODC (2014), Wildlife crime worth USD 8-10 billion annually, ranking it alongside human trafficking, arms and drug dealing in terms of profits: UNODC chief, (accessed on 13 May 2019).

[2] UNODC (2013), Transnational organized crime: the globalized illegal economy, (accessed on 4 December 2018).

[5] WWF (2019), Rhino: Species Facts WWF, (accessed on 30 April 2019).


← 1. Ten of eleven countries in Southeast Asia are Members of ASEAN, with the exception of Timor-Leste which is an observer Member.

← 2. These include the four species of Asian Pangolin: the Chinese or Formosan Pangolin (Critically Endangered); the Malayan or Sunda Pangolin (Critically Endangered); the Indian or Thick-Tailed Pangolin (Endangered); and the Palawan or Philippine Pangolin (Endangered).

← 3. Some organisations use Illegal Wildlife Trade to cover ‘the gamut from illegal logging of protected forests to supply the demand for exotic woods, to the illegal fishing of endangered marine life for food, and the poaching of elephants to supply the demand for ivory’ (FWS, 2019[14]). Others distinguish between terrestrial species (IWT), aquatic species (illegal fishing) and timber (illegal logging).


This work is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

Photo credits: Cover © mr.kriangsak kitisak

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1. Introduction