If we are looking to find the culprits behind Myanmar’s wildlife trafficking trade, then we would do well to zero in on certain areas in the country’s ethnic states.
Today, people are beginning to link the dots as China’s coronavirus spreads rapidly and it is hard to avoid the verdict that there is a possible link to the wildlife trafficking trade and that Myanmar plays an important role in the equation.
As death toll rose higher and passed more than 1,100 death count, with more than 45,000 infected, while nearly 190,000 are under medical observation, snakes, bats and now pangolins are now suspected to be the triggers of the novel coronavirus, now officially dubbed as Covid-19, by the World Health Organization (WHO).
After testing more than 1,000 samples from wild animals, scientists from the South China Agricultural University of Guangzhou found the genome sequences of viruses found on pangolins to be 99 percent identical to those on coronavirus patients, the official Xinhua news agency reported, on February 8.
Researchers have identified the scaly mammal as a "potential intermediate host," the university said in a statement, without providing further details. The new virus is believed to have originated in bats, but researchers have suggested there could have been an "intermediate host" in the transmission to humans.
In January after the outbreak of coronavirus China placed a temporary ban on all wildlife trade until further notice, which was welcomed by the World Wiildlife Fund (WWF) and urged China to permanently curb the trade.
“This public health crisis needs to be a wake-up call for the Asia-Pacific region that it is time to permanently close illegal and unregulated wildlife markets,” said Ron (Ryuji) Tsutsui, CEO of WWF Japan who is also the Chairperson of the “Asia Pacific Growth Strategy,” which is the WWF CEO’s group in the Asia Pacific Region. “If we don’t permanently end poaching and illegal trade of wild animals for bushmeat, for perceived medicinal value, or as pets, there will always be the threat of this kind of epidemic in the future,” according to the WWF statement of January 31.
WWF report titled: “Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Greater Mekong” wrote: “Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) occurs across the region – from remote corners of Myanmar and Laos, to markets in Bangkok and Hanoi – but its center of gravity is the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar, Lao PDR, and China meet. Here, casino-resorts, hotels, restaurants and markets openly sell illegal wildlife products with relative impunity. While it is understood that the majority of consumers in these markets are from Mainland China, buyers come from across the Greater Mekong and further afield in Southeast Asia, including Singapore.”
As such, the center of gravity being the Golden Triangle, two enclaves administered by United Wa State Army (UWSA) and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) or Mongla become the outstanding culprits that have fueled the wildlife trade, with the latter literally inheriting the nefarious title of “Ground Zero for Wildlife Trade”.
Reportedly, Mongla is the main supermarket for wildlife trade, offering everything from mammals, birds to reptiles, while the UWSA capital Panghsang caters to a more upscale products in its city's shopping facilities. But other wildlife trading points observation studies such as Myawaddy in Karen State have been taken into account, including the Golden Triangle portion of Myanmar's Mongla in particular, in the form of final report by Dr. Sapai Min, Lecturer, Department of Zoology, University of Yangon.
Two Reports on Wildlife Trafficking
“A Final Report on Investigation of Wildlife Trade in Myanmar-Thailand Border Cities under Growing Trans-boundary Economic Trade,” a one-year survey (March 2016 to March 2017) by Dr. Sapai Min, Lecturer, Department of Zoology, University of Yangon, wrote:
“Tachilek and Myawaddy were focused as two main study cities on the border with Thailand. Items observed at the survey site included animal skins, whole animals and body parts, primarily for use in traditional medicine and for decoration; live animals on sale to be kept as pets and wild meat for food were recorded. Wildlife parts were not observed in Myawaddy on the border of Thailand. In Tachilek, a total of 35 species were recorded, of which 33 species are afforded to some degree of protection under Myanmar’s national wildlife legislation which are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices or in International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) globally threatened categories. Only 18 of the 35 species observed were not listed in the CITES Appendices. Eight of the 35 species were not legally protected in the Myanmar Wildlife Protection Law (MWPL). According to interviews with local traders and from direct observations, most of wildlife species were brought by middle men from everywhere in Myanmar. Furthermore, wildlife from Tachileik is traded not only with Thailand, using illegal routes to avoid Myanmar-Thailand check points but also with China through Mongla, the border town as the destination of traded wildlife species. Therefore, wildlife parts were seen for sale in Tachileik but not in Myawaddy, where the trade is locally prohibited.”
“Although there were no wildlife parts in Myawaddy, some bird species and reptiles species were recorded as pet species in Mae Sot in Thailand, opposite Myawaddy on the border of Thailand. According to the interview with birds shop owner in Mae Sot, some bird species were recorded coming from the Myanmar side,” the report states.
Another study entitled “A Final Report on Assessment of the Impacts of Wildlife Trade in Relation to Conservation in Mongla city, east of Shan State, Myanmar-China border city,” also written by Dr. Sapae Min says:
“Assessment of the impacts of wildlife trade in relation to conservation in Mongla city, east of Shan State, Myanmar-China border city, was conducted over one year (October 2014 to October 2015). A range of wildlife species was for sale at markets in Mongla city on the border with China. Items observed at the survey site included animal skins, whole animals and body parts, primarily for use in traditional medicine and for decoration; live animals were on sale to be kept as pets and wild meat for food. A total of 48 species were recorded, of which 33 species are afforded some degree of protection under Myanmar’s national wildlife legislation and/or are listed in the CITES Appendices or in IUCN globally threatened categories. Only 20 of the 48 species observed were not listed in the CITES Appendices. Fifteen of the 48 species were not legally protected in the MWPL.”
“In all, a total of 48 wildlife species were offered for sale. Out of these, 27 species of mammals, 14 species of birds and 7 reptile species were recorded as the traded species in Mongla market. Most of species been listed under nationally and/ or globally threatened categories under the Myanmar Wildlife Protection Law 1994 (MWPL), the IUCN Red List, and/or in the CITES Appendices,” according to the report.
Both studies include three tables, which are: Table 1. Mammals species, observed parts and their conservation status; Table 2. Birds species, observed parts and their conservation status; and Table 3. Reptiles species, observed parts and their conservation status.
Ten Most Trafficked Species
The ten most wanted endangered species on sale in the markets of Golden Triangle are tigers, elephants, bears and pangolin, four of which are the most widely traded species in the Golden Triangle - the border area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet - according to a report from WWF. Rhinos, serow, helmeted hornbill, gaur, leopards and turtles round out the list of endangered species that are openly sold in a region, nefariously known as “Ground Zero” in the illegal wildlife trade.
According to estimates, thousands of elephants are illegally killed each year worldwide, producing hundreds of tonnes of ivory for export, with annual seizures amounting to tens of tonnes, according to the report of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in August 2019.
Reportedly, illegal trading of pangolins has grown over the past decade, and more than one million of the animals are estimated to have been killed.
Southeast Asian tiger skins, as well as the skins of other Asian big cats, are used for decoration and gifts, while their organs are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Bear bile, also taken primarily from the gallbladders of the Asiatic black bear, has long been used in traditional medicine as treatment for a wide range of inflammatory and degenerative ailments in East Asia and by Asians living in other countries.
Mongla the Wildlife Major Trafficking Hub
Mongla is located opposite Daluo, a Chinese border town in Yunnan Province, and approximately 258 kilometers from Mae Sai, a border town of Thailand, and approximately 80 kilometers north-east of Kengtung.
Technically the town is in Myanmar, but it is dependent on China for electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure and imports and exports. The main currency used in Mongla is the Chinese yuan.
Mongla, also known as Shan State’s Special Region 4, is a town that is nefarious for its casino, money laundry, flesh trade and illegal wildlife trading. Sai Lin, who led the breakaway faction from Communist Party of Burma (CPB) came to the area in the 1960s and after the CPB disintegration, he signed a unilateral ceasefire in 1989 in exchange for a freehand in the ruling of the Mongla area. His forces were renamed National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA).
“Myanmar has the perfect conditions for the illegal wildlife trade: abundant wildlife, conflict in border regions with little or no government control, located near the infamous Golden Triangle where all sorts of illegal trade thrives, and neighbours with China, where demand for illegal wildlife products is greatest,” Christy Williams, country director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Myanmar) said, as reported in the Myanmar Times in August 2019.
According to the WWF report of 2017, Mongla was portrayed as the poster child of a notorious wildlife trade and its markets have been identified as some of the worst offenders in the Golden Triangle. Surveys detected at least 39 tigers traded between February 2009 and December 2013. It is estimated that about one-third of poached wild tigers globally pass through Myanmar.
Other wild cat species detected at Mongla include leopard, golden cat, and clouded leopard, with 49 whole elephant tusks, plus more than 3,000 items of carved ivory, detected in December 2013. The estimated retail value of ivory and pangolin products observed in December 2013 at Mongla exceeded $4 million.
Surveys conducted in 2015 have also demonstrated the availability of African species, including rhino horn, which were openly displayed as both jewelry and consumable chunks, with stocks in just three shops valued at more than $250,000.
“It is therefore clear that the wildlife markets of the Golden Triangle have direct links with the current rhino and elephant poaching crisis in Southern and Eastern Africa,” according to the WWF report.
Greater Mekong and Golden Triangle Linkage
A survey of Mongla wildlife trafficking cannot be complete without taking into account the Vietnam connection within the Greater Mekong market network, which also includes the Special Economic Zone or SEZ of Laos.
If one cares to look at the map from the report “Running Out of Time: Wildlife Crime Justice Failures in Vietnam,” issued by the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), in July 2019, Chinese tourist hot spots such as Mong Cai, Hoanh Mo, Tan Thanh, and Lao Cai, in Vietnam with gateways to China, are about the same longitude-level with Mongla and Special Economic Zone of Laos to the west, which have border-crossings with China.
The major import sources are mostly African countries and wildlife trading countries mostly ASEAN countries, with only Myanmar and Laos which have two-way trade of imports and exports.
Thus, Mongla acts as both a buyer and seller in relation to Vietnam, which the EIA report pointed out as the biggest player in wildlife trafficking with an international network.
“Based on publicly available seizure data, Vietnam is implicated in over 600 seizures linked to illegal trade. This includes a minimum of 105.72 tonnes of ivory, equivalent to more than 15,779 dead elephants; 1.69 tonnes of horn estimated to be sourced from up to 610 rhinos; skins, bones and other products sourced from a minimum of 228 tigers; and the bodies and scales of 65,510 pangolins,” according to the EIA report.
Besides Karen and Shan states, Kachin State is also involved in the wildlife trade but less obviously.
“Despite intensified nationwide efforts to curb illegal wildlife trade, Putao - a remote town in conflict-torn Kachin State that borders China -- is a hotbed of the illicit activity, according to sources who saw first-hand the body parts of endangered animals being sold openly in markets and other public places,” according to a report in Myanmar Times on 16 March 2018.
Wildlife species’ body parts are available in Puta-o Bazaar, shops near Puta-o Airport and a bazaar at Mulashide village located near the town, according to activists.
Puta-o town is near the Hkakaborazi National Park, which is in line for listing as a world heritage site. Activists suspect the wildlife parts traded in the town came from the protected area.
“The northern Myanmar region has been identified as a potential transit and source place for the illegal trade of pangolins and their scales. In this study, we surveyed the trade links between Kachin State (northern Myanmar) and China and Kachin and India based on interviews, market surveys and online seizure data,” according to the research article “Illegal pangolin trade in northernmost Myanmar and its links to India and China,” published by Global Ecology and Conservation, in April 2017.
“Based on the results from interviews, we found that around 140–168 pangolins/year are smuggled into China via three different routes from Kachin to China. Scales are the most traded parts of pangolins in this part of Myanmar. Based on the online sources, 30 seizures of pangolin and their products were made on the Kachin–China route during 2010–2016, with all seizures made on the Chinese side of the border,” the report added to make the point of existing pangolin trade in Kachin State.
To sum up, the ethnic states of Karen, Shan and Kachin are all involved in the wildlife trade to varying degrees.
While Mongla the Golden Triangle in Shan State is reputed to be the wildlife trafficking capital of the world, Karen State of Myawaddy mostly trades only with Thailand and the Kachin State hunters hunt overwhelmingly for domestic consumption, with perhaps the wildlife mammals' flesh and body parts finding their way across the border into China. But the pangolin trade is an established fact, according to Global Ecology and Conservation research report.
And with the two-way trade between Greater Mekong countries, Vietnam in particular, Mongla will continue to be the hub of assorted wildlife trade.
For the time being, due to the coronavirus epidemic, although the wildlife trade, including the consuming of the flesh, is banned, the business probably will bounce back once the disease is under control and the ban lifted.
It should not be forgotten that China made it clear that the ban is temporary in nature.
"Raising, transporting or selling all wild animal species is forbidden from the date of the announcement until the national epidemic situation is over," said a directive issued jointly by three Chinese agencies, in the aftermath of recent coronavirus outbreak in January.
In the same vein, Beijing announced a similar ban during the outbreak of SARS in 2002.
Besides, China, the major wildlife products consumer, is entrenched in its usage of wildlife species parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including the love for exotic bushmeat which will be hard to curb.
With a value of between $7 billion and $23 billion each year, illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative global crime after drugs, humans and arms, according to World Economic Forum.
Ending the trade will be a tough call.
Some are hoping that China’s temporary ban on the wildlife trade will become permanent, not only to protect against new viruses but also to crack down on a trade that is leading to the extinction of many species of wildlife.