Wildlife Trade Booming in Burmese Casino Town

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 28, 2008
In a run-down casino town in northern Myanmar (Burma) market-goers can find everything from bear paws to tiger parts—evidence of a booming wildlife trade. However, recent crackdowns by governments in Southeast Asia may slow the illegal business, experts say.

On a 2007 trip to Möng La, on Myanmar's border with China, wildlife photographer Karl Ammann found a vast array of animal body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, including bear paws and gall bladders, big-cat teeth—and even a freshly dismembered tiger penis.

(See photos of the animals for sale.)

Some of the animals will become "bush meat," often-endangered species not commonly consumed by people that are killed illegally and eaten as delicacies.

"What I had not seen anywhere else in Southeast Asia was the amount of animals sold for food," the Swiss-born Ammann said in a telephone interview from his home in Kenya.

"There were cages stacked on top of each other with captured animals: black bears, macaques, small primates, pangolins, rare birds, all kinds of reptiles, and tables filled with butchered animals with bullet holes through their heads and their throats cut.

"It's one of the worst scenes I've ever seen," he said.

(Watch a video of Southeast Asia's grisly wildlife trade).

Ammann has traveled on his own dime several times to wildlife-trade hot spots throughout Asia and Africa. He often poses as a buyer and photographs what he calls animal abuse in the hope that others will take notice.

"I'm an activist who likes to document things and show them to the rest of the world, so that people can't say they didn't know this was going on," he said.

Time Magazine recently named Ammann a Hero of the Environment. He has been credited as almost single-handedly raising awareness of the bush-meat trade.

(See photos of bush meat in Africa. Warning: graphic content.)

Wildlife Trade

Some experts say bush-meat and illegal wildlife trade may be worth U.S. $8 to $10 billion in Southeast Asia alone—a reasonable guess, according to Steven Galster, the Bangkok-based director of the conservation group Wildlife Alliance.

(Related: "Wildlife Smuggling Boom Plaguing L.A., Authorities Say" [July 26, 2007].)

Wildlife trade further endangers already threatened or endangered species and often damages their habitats in the process, according to TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the industry.

For instance, trade operators often dump cyanide in the ocean to kill fish or log trees to gain access to animals in protected areas, damaging the environment.

What's more, people who handle wildlife and wildlife parts—from the traders to the consumers—are put at greater risk of contracting infectious diseases such as SARS, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its Web site.

An international agreement, CITES, was created in 1973 to encourage member countries to stop illegal wildlife trade within their borders.

In 2005 Southeast Asian countries formed the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) with the same goal of stamping out wildlife crime, Galster said.

His organization's encouragement of the network's member countries—such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia—to stick to the agreement is already influencing the market, he said.

For example, more raids and confiscations have taken place, and some traffickers who just years ago sold tiger skins on the open market are now hiding their wares, Galster said.

Las Vegas in the Jungle

Nestled in the hills of northern Myanmar, Möng La is not under control of the country's military junta but is instead part of an autonomous fiefdom run by the militia leader and alleged reformed drug lord Sai Leun.

The town used to be known as "Las Vegas in the Jungle" for its many casinos that catered mostly to Chinese citizens and tourists who traveled across the border to gamble.

But most of the casinos had to close in 2005 after the border was shut down by the Chinese government, who also imposed a ban on their officials and citizens against visiting Möng La.

Now it appears that wildlife trade has replaced other illicit industries—such as drug-dealing, prostitution, and gambling—as one of the most lucrative economic activities in the area. New roads built mostly by Chinese logging companies reach previously inaccessible parts of the forest where more wildlife can be taken.

"Before there was a lot of subsistence hunting, and it was hard to get stuff to markets," Ammann said.

"Now traders go by motorbike to pick up whatever they can. The hunters have totally new houses, all paid for by profits from wildlife."

China Influence

The close proximity to China also makes Möng La a hub for the global wildlife trade.

Colin Poole, director of the Asia program at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, said China's booming economy fuels the industry, which includes endangered species.

Animals are not only being used in traditional Chinese medicine but also being exported to large food markets in Guangzhou and other Chinese cities, where affluent Chinese can now afford to purchase imported wildlife products.

"The increasing wealth in southeastern China is dramatically increasing demand, particularly for exotic food species," he said.

Though China is a "huge driver" of wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, Wildlife Alliance's Galster said, the European Union and North America are also players in the business.

"We're seeing exotic species being poached and smuggled out of this region to parts of Europe and the United States," he said.

Liquid Gold

In Möng La, most animals for sale are openly displayed. Food stalls advertise dishes of pangolin, or "scaly anteater," and bear meat.

On back streets, dealers keep some animal items out of public view, according to Ammann.

"In one of the dealer rooms, I was offered a huge tiger skin and a corresponding box of tiger bones," Ammann said.

"In another place, a woman came by to buy four bear paws [used to make soup] for a restaurant. They sold for U.S. $150 a piece."

Bear bile, which is taken from the gall bladders of sun bears and Asiatic black bears and referred to as "liquid gold," is popular in traditional Chinese remedies and is thought by some to cure eye irritations, fevers, and liver problems.

On his trip, Ammann visited a bear-bile farm outside the town, in a place known as Möng La Paradise.

"I've seen badly kept chimps and gorillas, but I've never before seen 80 bears kept in a commercial setting in totally disgusting conditions ... never having a hope in hell of getting out of there alive, and every day getting milked through a catheter in their stomachs."

At the Chinese border, Ammann found dozens of bears locked in cages for sale.

"These bears are mostly used for meat and electrocuted when a dealer comes along and buys a bear for a banquet in China," he said.

Brink of Extinction

Richard Corlett is a tropical ecologist at the University of Hong Kong.

"There is now a market for almost any volume of any vertebrate species," he said.

"It is easier to name the species without a trade value, [such as] tapirs, in most areas."

Myanmar's forests are rapidly shrinking due mostly to China's growing demand for timber. Unless pressure from the international community convinces the Chinese and Burmese governments to make changes, these forests will continue to get smaller as wildlife trade increases, experts predict.

Already many species, including freshwater turtles, are simply disappearing.

Two of the three species of Asian rhinos in southern Asia are locally extinct in many places, and some countries have lost them altogether, experts say.

For example, less than 60 Javan rhinos, one of the rarest large mammals in the world, remain in the wild.

"Apart from the obvious animals—big cats and rhinos—I worry most about the less obvious [species] such as pangolins," Corlett said, "where huge numbers are traded and we know nothing about [the] impacts."

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