Southeast Asia's Illegal Wildlife Trade
Illegal wildlife trade totals billions of dollars a year globally, but conservationists say the problem is most acute in Southeast Asia. Despite international and local laws designed to crack down on the trade, live animals and animal parts -- often those of endangered or threatened species -- are sold in open-air markets throughout the region. Growing demand, porous borders and the lure of big money make it a lucrative business. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports for Radio Expeditions, a co-production of NPR and National Geographic.
The animals involved in the trade end up as trophies, or in specialty restaurants. Some are used in traditional Asian medicines. Chris Shepherd of the monitoring group Traffic International says that as a result, many species are simply disappearing.
"The two species of Asian rhinos in Southeast Asia -- Sumatran and Java rhinos -- are locally extinct in many places, and some countries have lost them altogether," Shepherd says. "Freshwater turtles in a lot of areas are finished. Pretty much everything in trade is declining."
Liz Bennett, who follows the trade for the Wildlife Conservation Society, says the problem is exacerbated by Asia's rising living standards and rapidly growing population -- and the resulting demands on the land.
"It's a huge problem, because the forest is basically like an unguarded bank," Bennett says. "Every single product in the forest is of value, particularly the wildlife, because you can sell every bit of every animal. Basically, the forests here are shrinking in size, increasing in accessibility and they're full of products which anybody can go in and pretty much take out and sell."
The illegal animal trade often goes hand in hand with transnational crime, including narcotics, trade in armaments and even trafficking in persons. The U.S. government helped fund a recent training workshop on environmental law enforcement for officials from nearly a dozen Asian nations.
A visit to Bangkok's weekend market offers a glimpse into how difficult it will be to win the battle against the traffickers. Burmese pythons, star tortoises and tiny, brightly colored birds are for sale here.
Wildlife trade experts say some of the business is helped by recent changes in Thailand's wildlife laws, which allow people to captively breed dozens of species of birds, mammals and reptiles. Thai officials say the changes will help relieve the pressure on the wildlife in the forest by providing a sustainable alternative.
Shepherd has visited thousands of wildlife dealers, both legal and illegal, throughout the region in his work monitoring the trade for Traffic International. He says the volume of illegal trade is staggering -- numbering hundreds of thousands of specimens annually. They include fresh water tortoises and turtles, pythons, cobras, rats, snakes and monitor lizards. "Mammals are traded by the thousands of tons," Shepherd says. "And when we're dealing with the meat trade, we're looking at 1,000s of kilograms being traded for domestic consumption. They're wiping out the wildlife."
A surreptitious trip into Myanmar -- also known as Burma -- reveals the animal trade is thriving just across the border from Thailand. Sullivan, who enters with microphones hidden in his backpack, describes the scene at the Tachilek market, one of the most notorious wildlife markets in the region:
"Not even 100 yards from the border, vendors openly display illegal animal parts, spread out on tables along the roadside for buyers to inspect. Leopard skins and deer antlers for trophies. Dried tiger penises and bear bladders check for traditional medicines. It's all here -- for a price. One Burmese woman eagerly displays a beautiful golden brown, clouded leopard skin -- about three feet long -- pulled from an iron trunk in the back of her store." Through a translator, the woman offers the skin at a discounted price of 1,800 Thai baht, or about $45. A competing vendor offers 40 or 50 pieces, "no problem."
Sullivan crosses the bridge back to Thailand, but his bag -- which could easily hold half a dozen tiger or leopard skins -- goes unchecked.
Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society says the loss of animal species could pose a public health concern because wildlife often acts as a buffer between diseases that occur in the wild and human populations. The catlike civet, for example, has been linked to the recent SARS outbreak, which began in southeastern China -- a key destination for much of the illegal wildlife trade from Southeast Asia.
"Each individual species has its particular ecological role in the entire web in the forest," Rabinowitz says. "Taking out one piece of the puzzle makes an incomplete puzzle, and that incomplete picture ensures an imbalance."
Thai authorities have set up a series of protected parks in hopes of keeping what wildlife remains. The Kaeng Krachan National Park is a three-hour drive southwest of Bangkok, just a few miles from the border with Myanmar. The park is home to a variety of species, including tigers, leopards, bears, elephants and deer. Under a new program, rangers ride elephants to patrol large areas of the park.
Wildlife Conservation Society field researcher Dusit Ngoprasert, who works in the park, says better enforcement would help. But, he says, the illegal trade won't stop as long as there are people who want to buy.
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