MONG LA, Myanmar—In this gaudy mecca of eroticism and greed on the eastern border with China, the cuisine isn't for the squeamish: Many items on the menu, including the drinks, are derived from poached endangered animals.
At one riverside bistro a tiger skeleton marinates in a dark alcoholic tonic in a 12-foot aquarium, its vacant eye sockets gazing down on patrons. The elixir is believed by its many aficionados to be a potent aphrodisiac that imparts the animal's muscular vitality.
"The tiger wine is good for both men and women," says a Chinese businessman who has lived in Mong La for a decade, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. "It makes a man strong in the bedroom."
The wine, like its grape-based relative, must steep, preferably for at least a year. Then, discerning sex tourists can quaff it for 1,000 yuan ($163 U.S.) per bottle.
"Most people just take one or two glasses," says a giggling waitress.
The drink is just one of many enticements that lure hundreds of Chinese across the border every day to Myanmar's city of sin. As a taxi driver ferried us through the darkening jungle toward the neon-lit valley in the country also known as Burma, he summed up the destination's decadent attractions: "There's not much in Mong La. Just prostitutes, gambling, and rare animals."
Mong La is a smaller, seedier, anarchic version of Las Vegas—a collection of casinos and their associated vices in an unlikely, out-of-the-way place, though one where the rare animals are not for show, but for consumption. From humble market stalls to high-end boutiques, the town is a macabre menagerie where Chinese tourists can scoop up a bargain. A framed tiger tail goes for 30,000 yuan ($4,890), a tiger skin for 100,000 yuan ($16,300), and a prized rhino horn for 280,000 yuan ($45,640).
The city is the capital of Special Region No. 4, a largely lawless, 1,911-square-mile realm in a remote area. This territory is typical of Myanmar's porous borderlands: a blind spot beyond government writ or regulation where local authorities apply national laws with caprice. In this crack between the paving slabs of statehood has sprouted the largest rare animal market in Southeast Asia—a poacher's paradise.
"The rate of poaching in Southeast Asia is unbelievable. It's being vacuumed out," says Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia regional director of TRAFFIC, a group that monitors the global trade in plants and wild animals.
During the past couple of decades, China's extraordinary economic expansion has created a vast cohort of nouveau riche, eager to spend cash on totems of wealth and prestige.
China's Middle Class Drives Demand
Today China's middle class (those earning $10-$100 per day) number some 150 million, a little less than half the population of the United States. During the next decade that figure could more than triple, ratcheting up demand for Mong La's unrestrained hedonism, bourgeois trophies, and traditional Chinese medicine.
"Poaching and wildlife trafficking of large mammals in Asia have increased exponentially over the last two or three decades, but also in Africa in the last ten years," he says. "The driving force is the increased number of middle-class or affluent people involved in conspicuous consumption in Asia, particularly in China."
It's a similar story with the array of other endangered animals hawked in Mong La's open-air apothecary: bear bile and claws, elephant hide and ivory, leopard and jungle cat pelts, as well as live pangolins, turtles, and monkeys.
In Mong La's main market, a woman sells four-inch squares of dried elephant hide. She explains that they are ground into a paste and applied to wounds to help them heal. As she talks, a giant, blue-eyed husky saunters past, sniffs her goods, and then tries to befriend a monkey chained to a post.
"I sell all my products to Chinese tourists," says the woman, who asks not to be identified. Like most of those interviewed in Mong La, she fears retribution for speaking openly from people involved in the illicit trade or local officials.
Continuing her sales pitch, she proffers what she claims are tiger claws, for talismans, and dried tiger penises, for extra sexual vim.
Menus across town feature turtles, lizards, and pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Several pangolins sit in cages outside one restaurant, like anteaters in chain mail, awaiting the pot. The meat of this small armored creature is considered a delicacy; its scales are used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ills, including poor circulation.
In recent years an international trade in pangolins has sprung up from African countries to Asian markets, driven by China's new affluence.
Tigers in Rapid Decline
The increasing popularity of expensive tiger-based aphrodisiacs and medicine has come at a steep cost: Asia's tiger population has collapsed.
Globally, their numbers have tumbled to 3,000 to 4,000 wild animals, just 5 percent of their population a century ago, according to Gray. Without a dramatic change, he says, "the future of this charismatic species is really in trouble."
Three of the nine subspecies of tiger are now extinct. By most estimates, there are fewer than 70 tigers left in Myanmar, where they have been declining for a century.
Shrinking Tiger Range
Until 1931, the Myanmar government provided licenses and rewards for killing tigers because they were considered pests. "This led to depopulation on a massive scale through sport hunting," a Myanmar government report concluded in 2003.
Then, from the 1940s to 2000, Myanmar lost one-quarter of its forest cover, all of it potential tiger habitat. Most forest reserves are now too small to support tiger populations. Meanwhile, there's less food in those forests because typical tiger prey such as muntjac (a small deer) and antelope have been poached so heavily.
The dwindling numbers of wild tigers mean the pelts, claws, and bones on sale in markets such as the one in Mong La often are fake, or smuggled in from tiger farms in Thailand, Vietnam, and China, Gray says.
Vendors, most of whom are Chinese, are keen to assure the authenticity of their merchandise. "It's not fake," insists a shop owner in stilted English, unfurling a leopard pelt with an 18,000-yuan price tag. "Myanmar people bring it here. We don't know where it comes from."
Animal Trafficking Replaces Opium Smuggling
It's difficult to establish firm origins for the animals sold in Mong La. Of a dozen vendors queried by National Geographic, all said their tiger products came from Myanmar, although it is unclear whether they first had been smuggled in from another country.
Most locals, though, point to the surrounding jungle of Myanmar's Shan State as the source. "In the past the business was drugs and heroin, but now it's animals, mostly from southern Shan State," says Abraham Than, an 88-year-old retired bishop, neatly condensing two decades of the history of the area known as Special Region No. 4.
Over a glass of local wine, Than talks about how Mong La's fortunes have changed since he arrived in 1969.
"There were no buildings; it was a jungle village," he says.
At the time, Shan State was overrun by rebel groups, far too many for Than to recall. In 1989, the army, which ran the country, reached a cease-fire agreement with the militants, including the National Democratic Alliance Army in Mong La. The NDAA, with about 3,000 troops, has controlled the region ever since, even as Myanmar has taken significant steps toward democracy.
Than built a Catholic church on a hillock overlooking the town in 1996, hoping to spread the Lord's word in a new era of peace, but the word mostly fell on deaf ears. "I say to myself, 'I have made a mistake coming here.' I wanted to come here to be a monk in the quiet, but it's so messy," he chuckles.
In the 1990s the NDAA became heavily involved in the drug trade in the area, which is in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Along with Laos and Thailand, Myanmar once produced most of the world's opium. It is now second behind Afghanistan.
Feeling the heat from the U.S. State Department, Myanmar's ruling junta pressured the NDAA's leader, Lin Ming Xian, to quit narco-trafficking, and by 1997 he proclaimed his fiefdom opium-free, but his reputation stuck.
One U.S. diplomat wrote in a leaked 2005 embassy cable that Mong La "is patrolled not by the Burmese army or police force but by a James Bondian private police force funded by regional leader and drug trafficker Lin Ming Xian."
Mong La quickly turned to substitute vices: gambling, the sex trade, and rare animals culled from the jungle.
"It's not regulated. Special Region No. 4 has been basically allowed to do what they like as long as it isn't opium. There's a real Wild West element to the place," says Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst.
Sex and Money Lure Chinese Patrons
Come nighttime, the city's lascivious pilgrims tank up on tiger-bone wine and head to the other side of the market, a hive of brothels with stilettoed courtesans.
In a haze of pink light, women wait patiently, fiddling with their phones and scrutinizing the men walking past with half-hearted interest. One man pulls up in a car and leans out of the window to take a closer look at the human bazaar. Catching my curious gaze, he appears to remember a pressing appointment and speeds off.
"We have more Chinese customers because the Myanmar people can't afford it," says a young sex worker who calls herself Nyo Chaw, or "Brown and Beautiful" in English.
The price of a woman's company starts at 100 yuan ($16) and goes up to 500 yuan ($82) for the whole night, she says, sipping on a soda. That might not sound like much, but it's lucrative compared to work elsewhere in Myanmar, she says.
"I came here because there is good money and my parents are poor," she says, suggesting the potential rewards outweigh the danger.
Investors and gamblers alike make a similar risk calculation. A caramel river snakes through town past half-built or abandoned hotels, according to the fortunes of their owners. "It's a place to get rich quick, but also get in trouble quickly," says one receptionist. "People borrow money to gamble, lose it, and get in trouble. One guy committed suicide in our hotel."
About 30 minutes outside town the casinos are full of Chinese gamblers, including people wagering remotely through surrogates with high-speed Internet connections.
Chinese authorities tend to turn a blind eye to this jungle sanctum, but they do occasionally intervene. In 2003, a large contingent of Chinese soldiers marched across the border and shut down five Chinese-run casinos.
The daughter of a high-ranking Chinese government official sparked the incursion after she lost 1.4 million yuan ($168,674) at Mong La's gambling tables, according to Asia Times Online.
The casinos were rebuilt away from the Chinese border, and Mong La bounced back.
Several months ago the Chinese stepped back across the border to arrest a casino owner known as Lo Ban ("Boss" in Chinese) for stabbing a well-connected member of the Wa, a powerful ethnic group with strong ties to China, according to a family friend of the alleged killer.
Retelling the story over a bowl of noodles, the man looks over his shoulder conspiratorially and lowers his voice. "I don't know what the fight was about. The casino has a lot of fights that end up in killings," he says. It was not possible to verify his claims, although the town swirls in hushed rumors of violence.
Day and night a steady stream of taxis and people-carriers ply the road out of town to the Galaxyse casino, a gray, tombstone-like slab of marble in a rice paddy.
Under a vast chandelier, chancers lay inch-thick wads of pink 100-yuan notes at the baccarat and other card tables, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In the casino's shuttle back to town a Chinese woman from Chongqing explains that gambling losses are, paradoxically, her gain. As a loan shark, she offers credit at 6 percent per month for more than 100,000 yuan and 8 percent for more than a million.
"Everybody loses, nobody wins," she says.
Bears Held Captive for Their Bile
Mong La's unwholesome character is best captured, perhaps, by the presence of what's known as a "battery bear farm," hidden in a rubber plantation near the Galaxyse.
We walk down an unmarked gravel track for a quarter of an hour. The boss is out, so we're granted a few minutes with the animals.
About 60 Asiatic black and moon bears are cooped up in each of the nine warehouses, some 500 bears in total.
A reinforced gurney sits outside one shed. Syringes and rubber gloves lie nearby, hinting at the purpose of the facility. The bears are bred and harvested for the much-coveted content of their gallbladders—bile—which is used to treat ailments including cancer and hangovers.
Inside, several bears pace in circles. Others growl or gnaw the red paint off the bars.
They spend their entire lives like inmates, peering out from tiny cages, periodically opened up and milked for their digestive fluid.
In the wild these animals would live up to 30 years, says the WWF's Gray. At a bear farm, they'll probably last no longer than a year.