This blog is based on the report, “Scaling Back Wildlife Trade in the Mekong Delta: Applying a Political Economy Lens to the Farmer Loophole with a Focus on Vietnam and Laos,” prepared by a team of researchers from the DevLab@Duke.
Growing economic prosperity in the Greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia has increased demand for wildlife products used in medicines, delicacies, and ornaments. This rise in demand has led to illegal animal trafficking, greatly threatening the survival of many endangered species in the region. Turtles, in particular, are one of the most endangered of any of the major groups of vertebrate species; they are also in great demand across China for their use in jewelry and traditional medicine. This exploitative trade can be addressed in part by closing the farmer loophole.
The farmer loophole refers to a situation where wildlife farms launder animals by replacing or supplementing farmed species with wild-caught animals. Laws in Vietnam and Laos protect rare and endangered species from hunting and trading, but only if those animals are caught in the wild. The loophole allows farmers to sell wild-caught species by claiming the animals were commercially bred on farms.
Factors Contributing to the Farmer Loophole
Governance and regulation structures have made it difficult to eliminate the loophole. The registration process for commercial wildlife farming is complex, and the numerous actors that farm owners have to contact for registration contributes to the loophole’s persistence.
The incomplete decentralization and overlapping authorities at the local level in Vietnam and Laos may also increase opportunities for corruption in the wildlife trade. False permits and manipulation of animal population records are widespread in both nations.
Forest police and other government officials in Vietnam and Laos often lack biological knowledge of which animals can be legally bred, traded, transported, and exported. Officials with limited biological and technological knowledge may be unable to differentiate between wild-caught and farmed animals in the field and evaluate whether caught species are rare or threatened.
Finally, low income levels among the population in the agricultural sector serve as an incentive for wildlife farms to engage in the illegal trade of wild-caught animals.
Recommendations to Close the Loophole
Interviews and consultations with Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) researchers, host government regulators, local NGOs, international NGOs, U.S. government officials, and private sector actors in Vietnam and Laos helped inform recommendations to combat the illegal trade in wildlife in the Mekong, with a particular focus on turtles.
- Implement a behavioral change intervention aimed at consumers of rare animal products—restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and public consumers—to reduce demand in Vietnam. By teaching the consequences of the destruction of native turtle populations and the negative impact on Vietnam’s cultural heritage, this intervention aims to reduce demand for turtle products, lowering profits and decreasing incentives to sell them.
- Improve enforcement by completing the DNA barcoding for Southeast Asian turtle species and training enforcement officers and prosecutors on proper turtle identification using a clear, structured curriculum with identifiable learning goals. Providing enforcement officials with the skills to detect the origin of farmed animals and distinguish among different species and lineages will create stronger enforcement and decrease traffickers’ profit margins, reducing farm owners’ incentives to engage in wildlife laundering.
- Apply a sustainable farming intervention that trains farmers on proper breeding, animal rearing, and legal responsibilities, and allows for some sale of wildlife (albeit not the most threatened) to supplement incomes. Farmers who possess appropriate breeding equipment and knowledge on safe and sustainable breeding techniques should experience lower breeding costs, making it cheaper to breed turtles than to launder them illegally.
- Conduct further research. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to evaluate the success of these three interventions can lead to precise impact analyses that identify which intervention or combination of interventions can do the most to rehabilitate Vietnam’s dwindling turtle populations.