In 1997 Myanmar signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which places partial or total bans on sales of the world’s most threatened species of wildlife.
Nevertheless, in the eastern Shan State, the ruling junta exercises little authority and the town of Mong La on the Chinese border, nicknamed ‘Las Vegas in the jungle’, an autonomous fiefdom run by an ethnic Wa-Chinese warlord and a drug baron called Sai Lin, is now ‘diversifying’ its business from narcotics and prostitution to the illegal wildlife business.
In the local market animal parts and live animals specimens, including macaques, cobras, Burmese star tortoises and pangolins, are openly on sale to Chinese tourists and many end up in the kitchens of exotic animal restaurants in China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Many of the animals involved figure in the IUCN Conservation Union’s ‘Red List’ of critically endangered species.
Another major problem is illegal logging in Myanmar’s teak forests. The London-based environmental group Global Witness estimates that 1.5 million tons of timber worth US$350 million were shipped illegally into China in 2005 alone.
‘Burma is being raped in terms of its natural resources: trees, plants and animals,’ comments Steven Galster, Bangkok-based director of the Wildlife Alliance. ‘They’ve got to get a hold of the situation quickly before it becomes a barren ground.’
‘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.’
The exotic animal black market, worth billions of dollars a year, is exceeded in value only by the illegal trade in arms and drugs, and is managed by well organized armed gangs.
‘These gangs are very big and have members stretching from Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand and right up into China,’ says 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.’
In recent years the Chinese government has sought to eliminate the domestic wildlife trade and educate people about the environmental risks of stripping forests of their native flora and fauna.
‘The situation in China is still bad,’ says Galster, ‘although the awareness among Chinese citizens and the government is much higher than it was before. 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.’