Myanmar and pangolins. Not words I normally think of together. That’s why the recent report by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring NGO, on pangolin trafficking in Myanmar took me by surprise. While I’ve followed the patterns of pangolin smuggling over the years, Myanmar is rarely highlighted. Until now.
TRAFFIC’s study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, exposes how the country is both a significant source and a transit hub.
Pangolins may be the most trafficked mammal in the world, with more than a million of them traded illegally during the past decade. These scaly anteaters get it from all sides—their habitat is disappearing, and they’re pursued by poachers for their meat, skin, and scales.
They often wind up in China or Vietnam, where their scales are used in traditional medicine as a treatment for a wide array of ailments, from rheumatism and eczema to cancer and impotence, and their meat is a culinary delicacy.
And they’re often smuggled in huge volumes. In October 2015, customs officials in southern China’s Guangdong Province seized a huge haul of pangolins: 414 boxes containing 2,764 (11.5 metric tons) of frozen carcasses.
TRAFFIC’s study focused on Mong La, which is part of a special development zone on the border of China’s Yunnan Province. Although in Myanmar, it’s ruled by a rebel warlord and operates more like a Chinese enclave. Chinese investors developed the town and built numerous nightclubs, casinos, and exotic meat restaurants that cater to a Chinese clientele. Time magazine calls it the “ultimate oasis of sin.”
Smugglers capitalize on Mong La’s lawlessness to smuggle and trade parts of many endangered species—elephants, tigers, bears, Tibetan antelopes, clouded leopards, pangolins, and more—making it one of the biggest wildlife markets in Asia.
TRAFFIC’s report on the importance of this border town left me with five main insights.
· Myanmar is a source of pangolins. Three of the four Asian pangolin species are native to Myanmar. The critically endangered Sunda and Chinese pangolins are found in the eastern part of the country, and the endangered Indian pangolin in the west. While TRAFFIC was not able to obtain firm data on the origin of pangolins in the trade, it appears that those traded in Mong La’s morning market—which deals in scales and skins—are likely native to Myanmar. During a one-day visit in March 2015, TRAFFIC investigators observed 18 bags of scales and 13 whole skins.
· Myanmar is a gateway to China. It’s a significant hub for trade in illegal pangolins thanks to its geographic position and weak government. Smugglers use it as a prime transit point for pangolins that come not only from Myanmar but also from neighboring countries and possibly Africa. During the five-year period from 2010 to 2014, authorities in Myanmar and neighboring countries seized 9,566 pounds (4,339 kilograms) of pangolin scales and 518 whole individuals—for a combined total of some 7,109 pangolins—implicating Myanmar as a source or transit zone. The report notes that Myanmar is often ignored in the international pangolin trade because it “has never reported a single seizure of pangolins to the CITES Secretariat.”
· The scale of the illegal pangolin trade has increased over time. Investigators observed only small amounts of pangolin and pangolin scales in 2006, but those volumes have risen more recently. “The fact that pangolins appear to be available daily is of high concern,” the report says.
· Law enforcement is limited. Given the open availability of pangolins and other endangered species, it appears that authorities have little if any interest in curbing the trade.
· Increased vigilance and targeted enforcement by both China and central and local authorities in Myanmar exist to choke off the trade at key times, such as around the Chinese New Year, could help curb the trade. That could be good news for pangolins.
Laurel Neme is a freelance writer and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.