Wildlife Heroes: Thailand x Lao PDR Cross-Border Innovation for Wildlife Conservation

Authors: Pattamon Rungchvalnont, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab Thailand and Philomling Vilay, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab Lao PDR

October 31, 2023

What first comes to your mind when you hear “illegal wildlife trade”? Mafia, arrests, crime, something very serious on which I have little power… The list goes on. 

Unlike problems such as food waste or air pollution that people can easily associate with, illegal wildlife trade may feel like a distant issue for many of us. It is actually an issue of paramount importance. It is the fourth most profitable transnational crime in the world (next only to drug trafficking, human trafficking, and arms trafficking) leading to multiple social and environmental impacts. Because of its association with transnational crime, illegal wildlife trade issues are usually tackled by law enforcement measures, including cross-border collaboration to address the transboundary nature of the problem. The question is… Is it enough to rely on law enforcement alone? Do we need a more holistic and integrated range of solutions to tackle this complex issue? This is precisely the question that was asked to the Government representatives from Thailand and Lao PDR who participated in a meeting organized with the support of UNDP Thailand’s “Combatting Illegal Wildlife Trade Project” in February 2023. 

One of the ideas that came out of the meeting was to engage local stakeholders on both sides of the border to get a fresh perspective on the issues. This was where the teams of the Accelerator Labs of UNDP Thailand and UNDP Lao PDR and the Youth Co:Lab became involved in finding innovative solutions to combat illegal wildlife trade. We designed our very first cross-border innovation challenge “Wildlife Heroes” – continuing our Thai Local Heroes series which engage local youth in co-creating innovative solutions to the priority challenges in their areas, including those related to food systems and air pollution. Local youth in Nong Khai, Thailand and Vientiane, Lao PDR were invited to contribute fresh perspectives and become local change agents for wildlife conservation within their communities. 

Summary of trade flow relationships between Southeast Asia and other regions

TRAFFIC Report: Southeast Asia: At the heart of wildlife trade, 2020
Setting the scene: The web of interconnectedness and current efforts in the region  

The Accelerator Lab teams started by looking into the data and gaining a systemic understanding of illegal wildlife trade issues. Globally, the illicit trade is estimated to generate as much as USD 5 - 25 billion annually (Global Financial Integrity, 2017). Given the massive scale of this illicit economy, its impacts are undoubtedly multifaceted. The most obvious one may be the impacts on nature, but it does not stop there. Illegal wildlife trade serves as a driving force behind the destruction of ecosystems as it provides incentives for wildlife hunting. Because of this, some species are facing a very real possibility of extinction. As ecologically vital species diminish, the overall system becomes increasingly unbalanced and vulnerable. Many species targeted by illegal wildlife trade also provide multiple ecosystem goods and services, affecting carbon storage and emissions, which contributes to climate change (UNODC, 2022). Once the natural ecosystems are affected, a domino effect eventually makes way to people’s livelihoods and potentially diminishes the quality of life of local communities. In addition, illegal wildlife trade fuels the expansion of corruption and criminal activity, undermines the rule of law, and weakens governmental administration.

Countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Lao PDR, are part of the global illegal wildlife trade route, both source and transit countries. Along with over 180 members, they have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) was established as a mechanism to counter the illegal cross-border trade in the region. The scope of collaboration encompasses crime suppression, law enforcement, as well as the promotion of alternative legal trades and sustainable use of wildlife. 

Wildlife Heroes: Bringing an innovative lens to the problem of illegal wildlife trade 

At UNDP Accelerator Labs, we propose innovative solutions to address frontier challenges. This time is no exception. Under the Wildlife Heroes initiative, we selected youth from both Thailand and Lao PDR to take part in co-creating innovative solutions to combat illegal wildlife trade.

From a pool of online applications, we selected six teams from each country or 12 teams in total to participate in the innovation challenge. As a first step, an incubation workshop was held in Vientiane Capital between 29 June and 2 July 2023. Participating youth spent three days together, visiting the field and working together to come up with innovative solutions, which they then presented to experts. 

  • Field Visit: Participants visited Nongkhamsene wetland, Vientiane Capital, and learned about the area’s biodiversity and community conservation practices. They understood how important biodiversity is for the local community and the role that local knowledge plays in tackling biodiversity related issues.
  • Workshop: The workshop started off with a panel discussion of experts that helped participants familiarize themselves with the topics. Then, each team sought to understand the root causes of illegal wildlife trade and its linkages to a much broader range of issues, such as poverty and lack of awareness. Based on this analysis, the teams identified their entry points and developed innovative solution ideas. All teams received feedback from fellow participants and workshop facilitators before preparing their pitch on the last day of the event. Only two teams from each country were then selected as finalists and received an award of 1,000 USD/team to test out their innovative solutions. 

The second part of the process was the testing which gave the finalist teams the opportunity to put their ideas into action during a three-month period. As the final round of competition, the two finalist teams from each country then presented the results of the experimentation. In this round, only one team from each country was selected as the final winner and received an extra award of 2,000 USD to expand their innovative solutions. 

Solutions from the fresh eyes: From innovation communication to livelihood promotion

The youth teams asked many interesting questions that the experts may have never thought about. “How can we make illegal wildlife trade issues more interesting and fun to follow like when we watch a beauty contest?” This was the question of ‘Everybody has only one mom, Coco’ team from Thailand. The team observed that beauty contests are very popular among the general public; people closely follow the contests, and they remain viral on social media even after the actual events ended. This sparked the idea of organizing ‘Miss Wildlife’ beauty contest to integrate wildlife conservation into a popular and fun event where people can get entertainment and education at the same time. 

The contestants had to answer questions about wildlife conservation and propose their own project idea for wildlife conservation. A crowdfunding initiative for wildlife rehabilitation was proposed by the winner. After the contest, she led a public awareness raising activity engaging with over a hundred people in Nong Khai. The contest also had a strong social media footprint as it invited people to cast their popular vote, resulting in over 92,000 online views and the contest being watched live online by a thousand viewers. Interestingly, the contest was joined by women as well as LGBTQ+, making it a solution that promote wildlife conservation and gender diversity in one go. This is an example of how we can mainstream gender aspects into the effort against wildlife crime. The team plans to scale this beauty contest to provincial level. 


Wildlife Heroes is one of the very rare moments where a joint initiative between two UNDP Country Offices brings together local actors from both sides of the border to drive change from the ground up. Wildlife Heroes initiative opens space for youth to contribute fresh perspectives to help combat illegal wildlife trade in Lao PDR and Thailand. Its process provides participants with an opportunity to learn more about illegal wildlife trade, to be innovative, and to test out their innovation ideas. 

As the working team, we believe that the participating youth are now equipped with a better understanding not only of illegal wildlife trade issues but also of social innovation, and that they can apply the new skills they have learned to other issues. It was a unique experience to have youth from two countries who speak similar languages get together and learn from each other. With this experience, all participants have become more aware of the need to collaborate and innovate. Many problems that we are facing today are transboundary in nature. Illegal wildlife trade is only one of many more. These problems require joint efforts across borders if we want to have a chance to overcome them. We look forward to more cross-border collaboration initiatives on our path to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.