Wildlife trafficking, like drug and human trafficking, is often a trans-boundary crime. Animal parts and products, non-timber forest products, and living creatures heading to the pet trade find their way across borders every day, passing fluidly between jurisdictions and human societies.

Given legal and language barriers, it can be challenging to catch criminals, follow leads, or even keep up to date on the policies and legislation that govern wildlife.

These are very real concerns for the participants in a recent cross-border cooperation workshop in which members of the Provincial Wildlife Enforcement Networks (P-WENs) from five provinces in the Golden Triangle area of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar met in Tachileik, Shan state, Myanmar. The workshop, which was organized by WWF, was attended by a range of wildlife authorities and law-enforcement officials, including representatives from the national and provincial forest departments, forest police, customs, prosecution, and police, to name a few.

These P-WENs have been a crucial part of an ongoing project, supported by the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), titled “Fighting Wildlife Trafficking in the Golden Triangle.” This project hopes to not only build capacity of enforcement officials to identify wildlife products and conduct investigations and arrests, but also to build cooperation among the three countries – Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – particularly in the Golden Triangle area, which is known as an illegal trafficking and trade hot-spot.

Members of provincial enforcement networks located in the Golden Triangle meet in Tachileik, Shan state, Myanmar. Photo: Mia Signs/WWF Greater Mekong

A similar, bilateral meeting was held in November, in which representatives from P-WENs in Bokeo province, Laos, and Chiang Rai province, Thailand, agreed to create a communication mechanism to collectively tackle illegal wildlife trade and jointly monitor six vulnerable areas along the Mekong River border.

The participants in this previous meeting had also witnessed the first ever arrest under the newly updated Thailand’s Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act 2019, in which a Laotian national was arrested for bringing in an illegally hunted porcupine into Thailand. Under the updated law, the maximum sentence was 10 years imprisonment and a fine of 1 million Thai baht (US$33,000).

This and other instances of cross-border criminal activity and lack of understanding of legal implications highlight the importance of making sure that the changes in laws in each country as they apply to wildlife are shared and understood. In addition to the new law in Thailand, Laos has recently updated its penal code, which increases penalties for wildlife crime, and issued the Prime Minister’s Order No 5, which stipulates better management and inspection of prohibited wild fauna and flora in Laos. Myanmar also updated its wildlife laws in 2018, enacting the Protection of Biodiversity and Protected Area Law.

Delegates discuss the challenges they face in fighting wildlife crime and identifying ways to improve cross-border cooperation. Photo: Mia Signs/WWF Greater Mekong

“There are not a lot of laws in each country that refer directly to wildlife,” said a delegate from the Laotian Department of Forest Inspection. “But when there are changes, for instance the new Thai Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act of 2019, we need to let each other know so that we can inform our citizens who live near the borders. I think WWF can play a major role in helping us communicate these changes so we can publicize them widely and effectively.”

In addition, monitoring an international border is tricky if the interlocutors don’t speak the same language, but chasing crime across borders is critical if the trafficking is to be stopped.

“We all know wildlife trade is a cross border trade,” said Soe Tint, deputy director of the Forest Department in Shan state. “We need an effective and secure communications mechanism to be able to talk to one another and tell each other not only what is happening on the border, but what is expected to happen. It’s difficult because our laws are different and there is a language barrier, but we must find a way.”

After a lively plenary discussion on the barriers to enacting enforcement and the opportunities for increased collaboration, the group split into two bilateral discussions – Myanmar-Thailand and Myanmar-Laos – according to the two existing border demarcations. The groups set about identifying priority areas for joint patrol, and decided on six areas between Thailand and Myanmar, and four areas between Laos and Myanmar.

P-WEN members from Laos and Myanmar discuss what high-priority areas along the border should be jointly monitored. Photo: Mia Signs/WWF Greater Mekong

They also agreed to set up informal communications through an online messaging platform, and agreed to start these communications in English. For the future, the participants proposed an exchange program for individuals based in the border regions, with people working for short periods in the equivalent department on the other side of the border. These kinds of staff exchanges would not only help break down the language barrier, but build trust and understanding about how different national and provincial departments function and work.

To start this process of understanding and learning, the participants took part in a collective market survey, where groups of officials from different departments and all three countries worked together to search for illegal wildlife products in markets at the border between Tachileik in Myanmar and Mae Sai in Thailand. They found a leopard-cat skin, porcupine quills, fake tiger teeth made of bones, ivory bangles, beads and trinkets, live soft shell terrapins (babies and two adults), dried deer-leg sinew, shark fin, fish bladders, and assorted animals including dead snakes and starfish packaged together as a Chinese medicine bag.

After the market survey, the two groups signed agreements based on the priority areas identified for joint monitoring and collaboration. The representatives from Tachiliek also promised to follow up on the illegal products that had been identified during the market survey exercise to show their commitment to making a change in the region.

“These types of commitments are the first step to building trust and establishing long-lasting relationships that lead to better collaboration on reducing wildlife crimes,” said Jedsada Taweekan, illegal wildlife trade program manager for WWF Greater Mekong. “By creating this precedence for communication, we hope to expand the capacity of officers in the P-WENs to work together. Only through these collaborations can we effectively stop the trafficking of wildlife across borders and protect endangered species.”

Signatories to agreements to manage wildlife trafficking cooperatively on the borders between Myanmar and Laos and Myanmar and Thailand. Photo: Mia Signs/WWF Greater Mekong