Snares – either metal or rope – are indiscriminately killing wildlife across Southeast Asia, from elephants to mouse deer. The problem has become so bad that scientists are referring to protected areas in the region as “empty forests.”
May 22, 2018 — A simple brake cable for motorbikes can kill a tiger, a bear, even a young elephant in Southeast Asia. Local hunters use these ubiquitous wires to create snares – indiscriminate forest bombs – that are crippling and killing Southeast Asia’s most charismatic species and many lesser-known animals as well. A fact from a new paper in Biodiversity Conservation highlights the scale of this epidemic: in Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom National Park rangers with the Wildlife Alliance removed 109,217 snares over just six years.
“Some forests in Vietnam don’t have any mammals left larger than squirrels,” Thomas Gray, the lead author of the new paper and the Science Director for Wildlife Alliance, said. “Given how diverse these forests formally were this must be having substantial impacts on ecosystem services and the [forest’s] entire biodiversity.”
According to Gray, the snaring crisis is worst in Vietnam and Laos, but is increasing in Cambodia – where he works – as well as Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand. In some places – even protected areas – it is so bad that scientists talk of “empty forests” where hunters have literally stripped the ecosystem of all medium-to-large animals.
“In Vietnam and Laos drift-fences are constructed to funnel animals into areas which are snared,” Gray said.
Killed animals aren’t necessarily going to feed local families, either, but are usually headed to large markets in cities to feed Asia’s growing middle and upper classes.
And snares are ruthless mutilators and killers: rangers routinely find animals dead in them, often rotted before the hunters return.Gray says that while snares are usually set to catch “ungulates” – hoofed animals like deer and wild pigs – they, in fact, hit any animal large enough to be caught.
“Because snares are cheap and easy to make they are set in phenomenal numbers,” Gray said.
His paper cites that rangers have removed 75,295 snares over five years from two adjacent parks in Vietnam – Hue and Quang Nam Saola Reserves – set up to keep the saola from extinction.
Only discovered in 1992, the saola is one of the rarest large mammals on Earth – and out-of-control snaring could very well lead to its extinction.
Other parks – such as adjacent Srepok and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuaries in Cambodia, Seima Wildlife Sanctuary also in Cambodia, and Nam Et–Phou Louey National Protected Area in Laos – have seen far fewer snares removed, less than 10,000 each. But, according to Gray, this isn’t because these parks have fewer snares hiding under bushes and trees – far from it – but that rangers in Southern Cardamom National Park as well as Hue and Quang Nam Saola Reserves are far better trained at finding the cable bombs.
Still, he adds, research shows that even the best ranger teams are probably only capable of finding about a third of the snares that are actually set, meaning potentially hundreds of thousands of animals are at risk in every park in the region.
‘Lucky’ animals may escape a snare, but are often left crippled for life: having chewed through or yanked off one of their feet. Camera traps in the region capture various animals – bears, otters and wild dogs known as dholes – somehow making do with a missing foot. Several Sumatran rhinos – one of the most endangered mammals in the world – have been found with snare wounds over recent decades, including wounds so bad that they have stumps instead of hooves.
“Here in Cambodia we have evidence…of elephants with snare injuries on their trunks,” said Gray. “Often such individuals are very thin suggesting they have difficulties feeding.”
Rescued animals are sometime brought to various wildlife rehabilitation centres where they may survive – but can remain a heavy financial burden for local NGOs.
If the world’s current mass extinction crisis had a head it would be Southeast Asia: the region has “more threatened species than any other comparable continental area,” according to Gray’s paper.
Rampant deforestation – Indonesia has the highest forest loss rate in the world – combined with a wildlife trade targeting everything from top predators to tiny turtles has left Southeast Asia’s wildernesses staggered. Compared even to Africa – which is facing a militarized poaching network – Southeast Asia’s big animals are battered, beleaguered and in nearly all cases hanging by a thread. The snaring epidemic, though not as openly discussed, is a major player in this ongoing destruction, which ecologists have come to term “defaunation.”
While having well-trained teams to remove snares is essential, it’s still not tackling the root of the problem, according to Gray.
“There is a need to strengthen legislation making it illegal to carry materials which could be used to make snares in protected areas. Given these material include rope this is tricky. But in Cambodia we are getting traction with this,” he said, adding that many people who set snares are actually in the forest to collect mushrooms or rattan and don’t even intend to return to the site.
“Some are set because people are simply bored.”
While it’s illegal to set snares in protected areas, it’s difficult to police. It’s easier for rangers to catch people carrying guns or traveling with hunting dogs than to know if people simply walking the forest may have easily–hidden snares in their packs or pockets.
In the longer term, however, what’s most required is what Gray calls “behavior change.” If wildlife – including not just mammals, but birds and reptiles too – is to have a real chance in Southeast Asia, the trade in animal parts for luxury meat and traditional medicine has to stop.
Gray believes changing society here is very possible, pointing to campaigns in the region to convince people to wear helmets, use condoms, and set up mosquito nets.
“But conservation has been late to employ this tactic,” he said. “I am convinced that such an approach is required for changing attitudes and culture in Asia regarding wildlife.”
If more isn’t done, all of the region’s forests could one day be “empty.”