Chinese demand takes toll on wildlife in Burma (Myanmar)
Chinese demand takes toll on wildlife in Burma (Myanmar)
September 4, 2007
If the market of Mong La is anything to go by, the remaining wild elephants, tigers and bears in Myanmar’s forests are being hunted down slowly and sold to China.
Nestled in hills in a rebel-controlled enclave on the Chinese border, the “Las Vegas in the jungle” casino town is clearly branching out from narcotics and prostitution into the illegal wildlife business.
Besides row upon row of fruit, vegetables and cheap plastic sandals, the market offers a grisly array of animal parts, as well as many live specimens, to the hundreds of Chinese tourists who flock across the border each day.
Bear paws and gall bladders, elephant tusks and chunks of hide, tiger and leopard skins, as well as big cat teeth and deer horn are all openly on display next to crudely welded cages of live macaques, cobras, Burmese star tortoises and pangolins.
Siberian tiger. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Why are Asia’s Endangered Animals so Sought After?
Here are some facts about three of the continent’s endangered animals and their commercial uses.
— All of the world’s eight species of bears are endangered, and five of them live in Asia.
— Paws from the Asiatic Black Bear and the Malaysian Sun Bear are used to make bears paw soup, and bile from their gall bladders — dubbed “liquid gold” because of its astronomical price — is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remedies said to cure eye irritations, fevers and liver problems.
— Bear bile is a legal product in China and North Korea, but banned elsewhere as the Asiatic Black Bear is a CITES* Appendix I animal. Chinese bear farms are thought to supply black-market overseas networks, and have been accused of buying bears from poachers in Myanmar and other neighbouring countries to fill the bear farms which milk caged captives for bile.
— Three of the world’s nine tiger sub-species fell extinct last century, and many scientists believe a fourth, the South China tiger is already “functionally extinct”.
— Poached from forests and sold to traders for as little as US$10, almost every part of Asia’s biggest big cat has commercial value. Skins are sold as rugs and cloaks on the black market, where a single skin can fetch as much as US$20,000. Tiger meat is marketed as giving “strength”, and bones are ground into powders or immersed in vats of wine to make curative “tiger bone wine” tonics for the TCM market.
— As tiger numbers plummeted, China banned all trade in tiger products in 1993. But environmental groups say some tiger products are still available, and tiger farmers are petitioning for the ban to be lifted.
— Found only in Asia and Africa, the largely solitary and nocturnal pangolin, or “scaly anteater” is sought after in Asia for its meat, considered a delicacy in some communities, and for its scaly skin, which is made into distinctively-patterned leather handbags and shoes.
— Pangolin scales are also revered in Traditional Chinese Medecine. Scales are sold whole, or ground up with herbs and pangolin blood, to cure ailments from allergies to sexually transmitted diseases.
— Asian pangolins are listed in Appendix II of CITES, which allows for limited trade. But a special “zero quota” was adopted in 2000 banning all international trade, in recognition of the threat the thriving unregulated market posed to them.
* CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It includes almost 170 countries, including China and all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Sources: Reuters, The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)
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The live creatures, some of them on the IUCN Conservation Union’s “Red List” of critically endangered species, are destined for the cooking pots of exotic animal restaurants in China’s neighbouring Yunnan province, or further afield.
Food stalls in the market openly advertise dishes of pangolin or black bear.
The body parts — some of which will not be real, given the ease with which a pig bladder can be passed off as that of a bear — will either be ground up for traditional medicine, worn as amulets or simply hung on the wall as trophies.
Most of the specimens come from the former Burma’s still vast tracts of virgin forest, wildlife experts believe, although some will have come from as far away as India to be trafficked into China by well-organised criminal gangs.
“Burma is being raped in terms of its natural resources — trees, plants and animals. They’ve got to get a hold of the situation quickly before it becomes a barren ground,” said Steven Galster, Bangkok-based director of the Wildlife Alliance.
“There’s a huge flow of illegal wildlife going into China, through whatever porous border points there are. This is definitely one of them, mainly because the Burmese government just doesn’t have a handle on the situation.”
MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR TRADE
Myanmar signed up in 1997 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which places partial or total bans on sales of the most threatened species, including bears and big cats.
Experts also say the junta that has run the country for the last 45 years may not be as oblivious to wildlife protection as might be expected from its reputation as an international pariah and ruthless crusher of political dissent.
Illegal logging of Myanmar’s famed teak forests is a major problem — London-based environmental group Global Witness estimates that 1.5 million tonnes of timber worth US$350 million was shipped illegally into China in 2005.
But in 2004, the junta did set aside a stretch of jungle the size of Vermont in the isolated Hukawng Valley to become the world’s largest tiger reserve.
However, in the Golden Triangle hinterlands of eastern Shan State, the junta exercises little authority — no more so than in Mong La, an autonomous fiefdom run by an ethnic Wa-Chinese warlord and drug baron called Sai Lin.
With the exotic animal black market worth billions of dollars a year — exceeded in value only by the illegal trade in arms and drugs, experts believe — it is little wonder the likes of Sai Lin are getting involved.
The 100,000 yuan (US$13,250) price tag on a tiger skin stretched across the wall of one Mong La shop shows what cross-border police efforts such as Southeast Asia’s Wildlife Enforcement Network, launched in 2005, are up against.
“These gangs are very big and have members stretching from Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand and right up into China,” said Aroon Promphan, a captain in the special wildlife crime division of the Thai police.
“They tend to be armed and there’s still political influence in countries like China and Myanmar.”
The Chinese government has stepped up efforts in recent years to stamp out the domestic wildlife trade and educate people about the environmental perils of stripping forests of their native flora and fauna.
However, the appetite for exotica remains and, partly as a result of the crackdown, the trade has intensified beyond China’s borders.
“The situation in China is still bad, although the awareness among Chinese citizens and the government is much higher than it was before,” Galster said.
“The problem is you’ve got 1.3 billion people and so it only takes a tiny percent of that population to be eating an endangered species to have a major impact.” (US$1=7.555 Yuan)