Thirty-three ASEAN Heritage Parks and hundreds of protected areas scattered across 10 ASEAN countries are home to extraordinary biodiversity covering at least four of the world's 34 biological hot spots and 20 per cent of its biodiversity resources.
The highland habitats in ASEAN countries, ranging from the snow- capped peaks in northern Myanmar and the Lorentz National Park in Indonesia to the mountain ecosystems in Indonesia, the Philippines and mainland Asia, are particularly noted for their high diversity of ferns, mosses, orchids and alpine forests.
The lowland rainforests in ASEAN countries, which are watered by great rivers such as the Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween and hundreds of smaller river ecosystems, are well known for rare species.
These include the Javan and the Sumatran rhinos, elephants, tigers and orang utans, as well as the lesser- known and more restricted endemic species such as the saola, found in a small part of the Annamite mountain range shared by Laos and Vietnam.
Biodiversity conservation significantly contributes to regional and global environmental sustainability by providing a foundation for ecosystem services which are intimately linked to the well-being of human societies.
Millions of dollars have been invested by donors and ASEAN governments alike to protect these parks and the invaluable biological resources and life support system they provide.
However, despite this, the system is deteriorating at a vast rate, leading to the extinction of various species.
Vertebrates in South-east Asia have the highest extinction risk caused by habitat loss, poaching and wildlife trade across the globe. The last Javan rhino was killed in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park in 2010, marking the extinction of the subspecies. Ten to 15 tigers are killed each year, out of only around 130 remaining tigers in the Leuser ecosystem in Indonesia, threatening to make tigers extinct in this area in not more than 10 years.
The ASEAN region is well known for the lack of effectively managed protected areas.
Consequently, many South-east Asian species will become extinct in the near future if current trends continue.
The ineffectiveness of park protection is rooted in the interaction of several factors.
First, while places in other parts of the world (such as Brazil and India) have moved forward relatively successfully, most ASEAN countries are still deeply contested by the absurd trade-off between conservation and development, such as road construction and agricultural development. Many protected parks suffer due to the inability and lassitude of ASEAN elites to find alternative solutions to this issue.
Second, there is the inability of the ASEAN governments to enforce laws to save protected areas. This, in turn, leads to a loss of respect towards the law enforcement authorities.
Those with vested interests and illegal actors continually flout such laws with impunity. Officials are clever enough to find excuses for their failures.
Third, the law enforcement issue is also interwoven with low motivation among government staff - including conservation officers and forest rangers - to do their job properly.
In the case of Indonesia, many heads of conservation areas are either not capable of carrying out their tasks or are entering their retirement phase, which gives them an excuse for not doing anything. Probably what is needed is for massive motivation efforts to be started among conservation officials in the field to raise their enthusiasm and make them proud of their jobs.
Fourth, unlike their distant neighbours in Europe or North America, most ASEAN parks are heavily surrounded by people, meaning that conflicts and social pressures are embedded within the protected area management system. However, until now, there has been little or no recognition of the role of social scientists in helping to prevent and mitigate these conflicts and social issues.
It has been proven that, in some cases, taking the "power" approach and providing economic solutions - without finding the root causes of the issues within the social and cultural systems of the people living around the parks - is not always effective.
Fifth, international and local non- governmental organisations (NGOs) are still the backbone of protected area management, but are less recognised regionally by ASEAN or the ASEAN Secretariat, which is too heavily government-centred. In Laos, the budget of one international NGO is much higher than the entire budget of the government's protected area management agency.
So synergy and collaboration between government and non-government actors and the ASEAN Secretariat is required. It also means that ASEAN member states should find a common ground to work with NGOs instead of unproductively deriding one another.
It is high time that ASEAN countries stop finding excuses for the failure to protect their parks. These are, after all, the main pillars of biodiversity conservation and the life support system that is important for the future of nature and the societies in the region.
ASEAN's formal and semi-formal structures should strive to find alternative ways of doing business for the sake of protecting these last remaining critical ecosystems. Extinction can only be stopped and reversed with creative minds and strong political will.
The ASEAN Secretariat should be strong enough to be a facilitator and coordinator to move forward the agenda for protected area management in ASEAN parks. At the very minimum, this should be done for the existing or newly proposed ASEAN Heritage Parks.
The IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, which ended yesterday, was attended by most of the high-level ASEAN government officials responsible for protected area management. Hopefully, they discussed these very issues. These officials should be held responsible for the future existence of ASEAN protected areas, and should find solutions to the problems that threaten them before it is too late.
The writer is a biodiversity conservation and governance specialist, with a PhD in environmental studies from the University of Indonesia.
This article was first published on November 20, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.