Manila, Philippines - In July 2022, an undercover operation in Pampanga, led by the Philippine National Police-Maritime Group (PNP-MG), resulted in the confiscation of a Philippine serpent eagle and the arrest of several suspects who were attempting to sell the bird, which had been advertised in an online buy-and-sell group chat.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List, the Philippine serpent eagle is categorized as a Least Concern species. However, it is important to note that its population trend is on a decline, leading to its inclusion under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This worrisome trend mirrors the challenges faced by other eagle species in the Philippines, all of which are equally susceptible to poaching. For instance, the Philippine Eagle is listed as Critically Endangered, and the hawk eagle is categorized as Endangered, both suffering from illegal wildlife trade. Additionally, all eagle species face the looming threat of habitat destruction due to deforestation for agriculture, livestock, and logging purposes.
The trading and possession of wildlife, including their by-products and derivatives, are explicitly prohibited under the Philippine "Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act" (RA 9147).
The law serves to safeguard the abundant natural wealth of the Philippines, a nation acknowledged as one of the world's 18 mega-diverse countries, containing between 70 and 80 per cent of the world's plant and animal species. Yet this astounding biodiversity has also helped make the Philippines a source, transit point, and destination for the illegal trafficking of poached wildlife.
Through the removal of key species, the illegal wildlife trade is severely impacting ecosystems and altering predator-prey relationships. With their majestic appearance and status as symbols of strength and pride, eagles are often a target of wildlife traffickers.
Traffickers mostly trade eagles to private collectors, to be kept as pets, or they are sold to zoos. As in this case, wildlife is often advertised online, a trend that has increased over the last years, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. The anonymity of the web makes it difficult for law enforcers to identify the numerous advertisements and the real-life identities of the sellers.
But Philippine law enforcement agencies have made significant progress in combating wildlife crime, thanks to an advisory programme launched in 2021 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with support from the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The programme brings together a diverse group of agencies representing different areas of expertise and authority, including the police, customs, wildlife authorities, and prosecution services.
During the advisory meetings, the agencies discuss case development for recent arrests and seizures and devise strategies to execute joint operations and investigations. UNODC provides the agencies with information on specialized investigation techniques and mentoring aimed at sharing international best practices relevant to the Philippines.
The advisory programme has contributed to more effective operations conducted by law enforcement authorities, with PNP-MG's Police Colonel Oliver Tanseco crediting the success of the operations to the improved collaboration, information sharing, and joint planning among participating agencies.
"Several of the operations were carried out jointly with our partners in the program, including the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development and several regional offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Coordination was seamless due to our shared membership in the Advisory Program and our regular interactions," shared Police Colonel Tanseco.
In 2022, the PNP-MG conducted a staggering 852 operations related to violations to the country's Wildlife Act, a four-fold increase from the previous year's 169 operations. The increase was partly attributed to a higher demand for wildlife as "exotic" pets; a surge of social media posts and groups promote the keeping of exotic wildlife as pets; and the unwitting involvement of ride-sharing and delivery companies in the transport of illegally traded wildlife.
The Advisory Program has also put a spotlight on the emerging and pervasive problem of wildlife trafficking. As Police Colonel Tanseco remarked: "Through our exposure in the Advisory Program, we have come to fully grasp the ecological imbalance caused by this illegal trade and its dire consequences on human health, development, and well-being. It's a grave matter that demands our attention and, consequently, our decisive action."
Successes have also been seen in Cambodia, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and Thailand, where UNODC also runs similar Advisory Programmes to combat wildlife and forest crime. UNODC has further supported the capacity of these countries by facilitating access to a variety of equipment crucial for conducting operations and investigations.
As for the rescued eagle, the PNP-MG reported that they have transferred the bird to a wildlife rescue center within the city, where it will undergo rehabilitation. The ultimate goal is to release this magnificent creature back into the wild once it has made a full recovery.