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Gov’t task force wins international award

/ 04:58 AM February 22, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — An interagency government task force focused on curbing wildlife trafficking in the Philippines was recognized by the United Nations for its efforts in halting illegal wildlife trafficking and trade in the country.

The Philippine Operation Group on Ivory and Illegal Wildlife Trade (Pogi) was among the eight winners of the Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards for 2020, given in recognition of achievements in combating transboundary environmental crimes, including those in wildlife and in plastic waste.

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It is the first time for Pogi, which operates under the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-BMB), to receive the award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, and the World Customs Organization.

The task force was nominated and won under the category of “impact,” which highlights how law enforcement operations have successfully disrup­ted criminal networks.

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It is composed of wildlife law enforcers from the DENR and the National Bureau of Investigation, as well as representatives from the Philippine National Police, Bureau of Customs (BOC) and the Philippine Coast Guard, and regional and local enforcement personnel.

‘Impact of operations’

“The Pogi team has provided an excellent example of collaboration and coordination between enforcement agencies leading to improved impact of operations against the illegal trade in wildlife,” the citation read in the winners’ announcement last week.

The UNEP highlighted Pogi’s arrest of Sharon Jonjon Lim, a notorious online trafficker of raptors and other wild animals, who had eluded authorities for at least five years. His arrest in Manila in 2019 led to the rescue of 13 animals, including peregrine falcons, eclectus parrots, sulcata tortoises and iguanas.

Organized in 2013, Pogi was initially formed to probe reports of ivory smuggling after the Philippines was tagged among the countries of concern in the illegal ivory trade, particularly in its role as a transit country for elephant tusks.

It has expanded its mandate, leading various enforcement operations against wildlife poaching and trafficking.

Hot spot

Wildlife crime is a lucrative trade, valued at $10 billion to $23 billion every year, according to World Bank’s Global Wildlife Program. It is the fourth biggest illegal business on the pla­net, following narcotics, human trafficking and firearms.

In the Philippines, a country known for its rich and unique biodiversity but also a hot spot for environmental crime, at least P50 billion is lost annually due to the illegal trade. The estimated amount covers market value of wildlife, ecological and ecotourism value and damage to habitats.

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Data from the DENR-BMB showed that the value of confiscated wildlife from 2013 to 2018 reached nearly P185 million. This is perhaps a conservative figure, based only on the selling price of the confiscated wildlife in that period.

With traffickers quickly adapting to new tools and techniques in their trade, such as operating in the underbelly of social networking sites, Pogi and its government and civil society partners have a lot of work ahead of them.

“We are very happy and thankful that our efforts have been recognized,” said Rogelio Demelletes Jr., a BMB wildlife law enforcer and a Pogi member.

“This is just a bonus, of course, since we don’t expect any award,” he said. “What we are doing is just inherent in our function.”

Demelletes said the team had been successful in wildlife protection, as well as in the enforcement and filing of cases, and even in court convictions.

Waste smuggling

The UNEP also recognized John Simon, a port collector with the BOC in Northern Mindanao, for his work against the entry of imported illegal waste in the Philippines.

He was cited for his help in initiating court proceedings against foreign suspects involved in waste smuggling, as well as for spearheading the clearing of dumps of illegal foreign waste.

Other awardees included individuals and environmental law enforcement groups in India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“In light of the ongoing global crisis, addressing illegal wildlife trade and other environmental crimes will contribute significantly to keeping our forests healthy and securing the lives of more than 650 million people in the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) that depend on these,” Theresa Mundita Lim, executive director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, said in a statement.

While the work of the United Nations and Interpol has improved the governance of transboundary environmental crime, it is nothing without enforcement, said UNEP Asia-Pacific regional director Dechen Tsering.

“That’s why the work of this year’s winners is vital. They are on the front lines of environmental protection,” she said.

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TAGS: Philippine Operation Group on Ivory and Illegal Wildlife Trade, Pogi, UNEP
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