Snares are wiping out South-East Asian wildlife – what can be done?

Conservation workers examine the body of a Sumatran tiger that died after getting caught in a snare in Indonesia

Afrianto Silalahi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At any time, there are estimated to be at least 13 million snares in protected areas of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that have been set by local hunters, seeking wild meat. These simple devices indiscriminately kill large numbers of threatened animals, including tigers, elephants and monkeys.

Between 2011 and 2021, snare removal teams confiscated 118,151 snares from two reserves in Vietnam. While this approach has helped to save many animals, it cannot address the huge scale of the problem across South-East Asia. Researchers say more must be done to reduce the demand for wild meat – but there are no easy solutions.

The vast majority of the snares are professionally made, wire noose traps, says Andreas Wilting at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany. There will often be brush fences between the snares, so animals are driven into them, he says.

“There will be a snare, a little fence, another snare, a little fence,” says Wilting. “And that can go along the entire ridge line for 100 metres, so absolutely any animal which runs across that ridge line or which walks along the ridge line will be trapped in that snare line. That’s why, often, people call these snare lines the drift nets of the land.”

Wilting and his colleagues, who also included staff of conservation group WWF Viet Nam, examined the impact of 11 years of determined snare removal in two protected areas in central Vietnam: Hue Saola Nature Reserve and Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve. Together the areas cover nearly 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) of closed canopy rainforest, with elevations up to nearly 1500 metres.

They are especially important for protecting numerous endangered and endemic species found in the Annamite mountain range, including a large bovine called the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), which was only described in 1993 and hasn’t been seen in the wild since 2013.

Although hunting is illegal in both reserves, it is still commonplace, say the scientists.

Andrew Tilker, a team member at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, says most snaring in South-East Asia is for restaurants and wildlife markets, rather than being subsistence-based.

“In my experience, a lot of people think that snaring is, by default, done by economically impoverished people looking for food,” he says. “That simply isn’t the case in Vietnam. This is important because ­– in Vietnam, at least – it isn’t as if there is a moral conflict between removing snares and depriving people of nutrition.”

A snare found in a protected area in Vietnam

Andrew Tilker

For the study, the researchers divided the protected areas into 200-square-metre cells and then assessed whether the effort to continually remove snares and fences led to any decrease in hunting.

The “forest guardians” paid to remove the snares often spent up to a week trekking and camping in the rainforests, says Luong Viet Hung, from WWF Viet Nam. He says 20 to 30 per cent of those hired to remove snares were once poachers themselves.

Over the 11 years, the researchers estimate there was a 36.9 per cent reduction in the number of cells in which snares were found.

The average area the forest guardians had to cover to find each snare increased from 1.3 hectares in 2011 to 2.6 hectares in 2021.

The programme cost about $220,000 per year – which came from WWF Viet Nam and the Vietnamese government – meaning the average cost of removing each snare was $20.50. In comparison, the cost of setting each snare was about $1.13.

While the programme was successful, this approach cannot address the threat of wildlife snaring on its own, the team says. In fact, it may have simply driven poachers deeper into the forest or into other reserves, they say.

The researchers estimate that rolling out such snare removal efforts across the whole of South-East Asia would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and may be impractical.

A sun bear with a snare wound

Bidoup – Nui Ba, SIE, and Leibniz-IZW

To prevent the extinction of many of the region’s iconic large animals, governments and other organisations must work with communities to address the underlying drivers behind snaring, say the team and other experts.

“While there is a whole laundry list of threats facing wildlife in protected areas, snaring may be the final nail in the coffin for many species on the brink of extinction in South-East Asia and beyond,” says Christopher O’Bryan at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

He says snare removal is one tool to address the issue, but it should also be used alongside long-term strategies that tackle the socioeconomic reasons for snaring.

“It’s important to note that the problem of snaring is not limited to South-East Asia. It is likely a problem wherever people living next to protected areas are desperate for food and money,” says O’Bryan.

“Also, many species that get snared are collateral damage. For example, lions in Africa are declining at unprecedented rates due to getting caught in snares that are intended for large herbivores.”

Jan Kamler at the University of Oxford is downbeat about the issue and says snare removal won’t solve the problem. Kamler says indiscriminate snaring has already eliminated tigers and leopards from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

“Probably the only solution is to affect the demand side, which likely will take a generation even if a concerted effort is made,” says Kamler. “As long as the demand is there and prices remain high for wild meat, then local people will snare even if alternative livelihoods are available.”

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