The animals of Southeast Asia’s tropical rainforests are under threat. As if deforestation and habitat degradation weren’t enough to contend with, cheap, easy-to-produce illegal snares are being set at an alarming rate in the last refuges for wildlife in the region, indiscriminately killing and maiming ground-dwelling mammals and birds.

A new study, co-authored by two WWF conservationists, has found that these illegal snares are a more severe threat to the biodiversity of Southeast Asia than forest degradation caused by logging. This reinforces the belief already held by many conservationists that snaring is having a truly devastating effect on the wildlife of the Greater Mekong region and has major implications for how conservation work should be conducted in the region.

This is not to diminish the importance of habitat conservation. The contribution of habitat loss to declines in biodiversity is far from trivial, with complete deforestation leading to numerous extinction events throughout human history. We should continue to expand and better manage Southeast Asian forested areas.

However, the new study – carried out by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), WWF Vietnam and Laos, and the Forestry Department of the government of Sabah, Malaysia – found that while both defaunation drivers (that is, reasons for large-scale loss of wild animals in a specific area) resulted in functional extinctions (certain species appearing in less than 2.5% of camera-trap locations), the relative impact of these two drivers differed substantially. Higher defaunation rates in the hunted sites suggest that widespread indiscriminate hunting is a more severe threat than moderate levels of habitat degradation.

Snare traps found in Vietnam. Photo: Denise Stilley / WWF-Vietnam

This paper comes on the heels of another eye-opening study on the probable extinction of tigers and leopards in Laos, which similarly highlighted the devastating effect that snares and traps are having on the wildlife of our jungles.

But this new study is the first to compare directly the difference in impacts between moderate forest degradation and illegal hunting on the populations of forest fauna at the landscape level.

Researchers set up camera traps in forests within logging concessions in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, and in the Annamites mountain range that runs along the border of Vietnam and Laos, where illegal hunting and poaching are rampant. These two landscapes are uniquely suited for comparison because they have similar habitats and wildlife species, but the threats are starkly different, with very little hunting taking place in Sabah, and very little structural damage taking place in the Annamites.

The camera-trapping-based study found that while both logging and intensive hunting were ultimately detrimental to ground-dwelling mammals and birds, over-hunting had resulted in 25 species becoming functionally extinct in the Annamites, while only four species went functionally extinct in the degraded forests of Sabah. Furthermore, no large carnivores, mega-herbivores, or heavy ground-feeding birds were found in the Annamites, even though these species would have historically inhabited this area.

“Snares are pernicious because they are inexpensive to make, can be set very quickly, and are incredibly deadly to anything that steps into them,” said Francois Guegan, conservation director of WWF Laos and a co-author on the paper. “Countries like Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are facing a snaring crisis, and if we are to prevent the remaining endemic species of this region from going extinct, we must dramatically improve the management of protected areas and invest in specialized wildlife-protection teams.”

This loss of wildlife isn’t just sad because we will lose species we may never see again. It also has massively detrimental impacts on the ecosystems on which we humans depend. For example, losing large bird species reduces the rate and area of seed dispersal, impacting the very structure of the forest and thus reducing the carbon storage capacity of tropical rainforests.

“If we don’t mobilize the political and social will to end industrial-scale snaring, we face the possibility of empty forests across the region, with rare and endemic species being completely wiped out,” said Ben Rawson, conservation director of WWF-Vietnam, also a co-author of the study. “Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem function in tropical forests is in the best interest of national governments that depend on the ecosystem services they provide, like clean water and carbon sequestration. Local communities also rely on these forests for their livelihoods, and their support is needed if we are to manage these landscapes in a sustainable way.”

The bottom line? If we are to preserve the rich but declining biological diversity of Southeast Asia, diverse stakeholders – including governments, development and aid partners, conservationists, local communities and the private sector – must come together to develop novel conservation approaches that go beyond maintaining  tree cover. They must also allocate more resources to address widespread poaching, close the illegal wildlife-trade markets that are supplied by this activity, reintroduce and recover the declined wildlife, create incentives for local communities to become stewards of their forests, and put a complete stop to snaring in the region.