Leopard cat. Photo: WWF / Peking University

We barreled along winding roads in a Provincial Office of Forest Inspection (POFI) truck, splashing through streams and crashing into branches that reflected our headlights before smacking into the windshield. Out the window, I could see a sky full of stars, a sight rarely witnessed in Vientiane or other cities in Southeast Asia.

We were in Oudomxay province, rushing to meet representatives from Free the Bears and a documentary crew from the British Broadcasting Corporation. They were preparing to release an Asian palm civet, and we didn’t want to miss it.

This civet, and a leopard cat slated to be released in the morning, were both discovered in a restaurant between Oudomxay and Luang Prabang, slated to become meals for customers interested in eating wild bush-meat. Instead, the animals were surrendered to POFI, the provincial office of the national Department of Forest Inspection in Laos. DoFI is the lead agency for the Lao Wildlife Enforcement Network (Lao-WEN).

Winds of change

In May 2018, the prime minister of Laos issued Prime Minister’s Order No 05, which prohibits the hunting, trading and farming of wildlife on the protected-species lists. In order to take advantage of this positive change in political will, WWF signed a memorandum of understanding with DoFI in March this year. The goal was to work with the department as the head of the Lao-WEN to curb the rampant illegal trade of wildlife products in the border regions of Laos, especially in the Golden Triangle. Located at the crossroads of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China and intersected by the Mekong River, the Golden Triangle is a hotbed of illegal trafficking, be it drugs, people, or wildlife.

After the signing of the MoU, WWF has worked with the POFI and other members of the P-WENs in the three Golden Triangle provinces of Bokeo, Luang Namtha and Oudomxay to help develop and review their protocols for enforcement. Training sessions were held to improve the capacity of P-WEN members to identify illegal wildlife products and conduct enforcement actions when products are reported or found.

And actions have been taken. Since the signing of the MoU, confiscations of live animals and wildlife products have increased. From July to October this year, POFI in Oudomxay alone has carried out 12 inspections of target markets, shops and roadside stalls and confiscated a total of 357 wildlife products, including nine live animals.

But what to do with these animals once they’ve been taken into custody?

Enter Free the Bears, a non-profit organization started in Australia that has a Bear Rescue Center in Luang Prabang, Laos, as well as in Vietnam and Cambodia. Originally opened to help bears that were being used in the production of bear bile for Chinese traditional medicine, its mandate and facilities have expanded to provide rescue and rehabilitation for many animals confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.

Already this year, Free the Bears has taken in 17 bears that were surrendered to P-WEN officials. This is the third record-breaking year in a row, up from 10 bears being rescued in 2017, and 13 in 2018. As recently as October 29, Oudomxay POFI took custody of two Asiatic black bears and handed them over to Free the Bears. The 78-kilogram male and a 90kg female had been kept at a bear-bile farm for eight years but are now on their way to being integrated into the sanctuary groups in Luang Prabang once they’ve been given a clean bill of health.

The two bears are undergoing health checks and on their way to joining the Free the Bears sanctuary. Photo: Free the Bears

As part of this healthy partnership between Free the Bears and POFI, the civet and leopard cat were handed over and rehabilitated in the facilities in Luang Prabang.

And now they are ready for release.

A rescued and rehabilitated leopard cat, leaving its enclosure. Photo: Aidan Flanagan / WWF Laos

Watching these animals emerge from their small carriers into the protected area where they would now be living was very exciting, and a wonderful indication of how partnerships between the government and NGO sectors can bring about real change.

After the release of the leopard cat, we headed back into Oudomxay town to witness the burning of 357 of the confiscated wildlife products, all 218.7kg of which were piled on to a pyre in front of members of the P-WEN and students from a local technical college.

Burning confiscated illegal wildlife products in Oudomxay. Photo: Aidan Flanagan / WWF Laos

This act shows the commitment of the Oudomxay provincial government to keep these products out of the markets, and sends a clear message that enforcement actions will be taken to disincentive the buying and selling of illegally acquired wildlife. By supporting these efforts, WWF hopes to change the perception of illegal wildlife trade as a viable livelihood activity, and instead promote better management of protected areas so that our wild friends, like the civet and the leopard cat, can live healthy, long lives.

Mia Signs

Mia Signs is the communications manager for WWF-Greater Mekong's work on illegal wildlife trade, as well as for the WWF initiative to Close Asia's Ivory Markets. She is based in Vientiane, Laos.

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