Noted wildlife photographer and cameraman Karl Ammann has made numerous trips to the Golden Triangle region to document the illegal and destructive trade in wild animals. His trips have included the Shan Special Region 4 in Burma where a lucrative cross-border business has emerged in recent years, with tigers, bears, leopards and other animals hunted, caged and killed for food and medicinal products, mainly for consumption in China’s Yunnan Province.
At a screening of his 2007 documentary on the Mong La animal trade in Bangkok earlier this week, Ammann lamented the apparent decline of the animal population in the region around Mong La, the revamped casino town in Shan State near the Chinese border. Once a haven for gambling, drug trafficking and prostitution, the people of Mong La and the surrounding area––for a time at least––have taken to hunting large, rare and exotic animals.
Ammann’s documentary featured some gruesome exhibits, such as a group of around 80 black bears kept in small cages, having their bile “milked” via catheters. This so-called “liquid gold,” is popular in traditional Chinese remedies, an apparent cure for eye and liver problems. Ammann highlighted the vast array of animal body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine––such as bear paws and gall bladders, big-cat teeth and tiger penis––which can be found at markets around the town.
Ammann believes that much of the economic motivation for the illicit animal trade comes from the reduced drug trade in Shan State in recent years. China closed its border post near Mong La in 2005, apparently after family members connected to the Communist Party leadership lost heavily while gambling at the casino there
The Swiss-born photographer’s images included cages stacked on top of each other, containing macaques, small primates, pangolins, rare birds and a wide variety of reptiles. Other pictures showed gore-laden tables covered with animal remains, including dogs and monkeys, some with bullet holes through their heads, their throats cut or beheaded. Many of the animals on display are listed as endangered species.
Ammann says the scale of the illicit trade he witnessed in Mong La outweighs anything he has seen, including the well-documented “bushmeat” trade in central and eastern Africa, adding that animal numbers have declined significantly due to hunting.
However, just as Ammann found a desolate Mong La in 2007, and a near traffic-free border post, he fears that the nearby hills and forest are now barren of much of the large wildlife that once roamed the region.
The border post has reportedly reopened from the Chinese side, enabling a return influx of Chinese gamblers and tourists, and a return to the older, bustling Mong La, once known as “Las Vegas in the Jungle.”
The border post apparently re-opened amid Burmese junta pressure on ethnic cease-fire groups, including the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA), to stand down and become part of the junta’s border security forces. The re-opening appears to have taken place not long after the Burmese army offensive against the ethnic Chinese Kokang, which sent 37,000 refugees into China and caused consternation in Beijing. The NDAA, UWSA and other cease-fire groups are thought to be stepping up drug production and selling off stocks to finance a possible war with the government forces, should Naypyidaw seek to enforce the border guard plan.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) gathering has just concluded in Doha, Qatar, and has been condemned as a failure by conservationists after member states vetoed protection measures proposed to reduce the hunting of various sharks, blue-fin tuna and bears.
“LDCs [lesser-developed countries] no longer want to be dictated to by the West. They say, ‘You have consumed so much over the past century, but now you want to stop us doing the same,’” said Ammann.
Burma and China are both signatories to CITES, and the trade puts both countries in breach of their obligations under CITES. Burmese government officials protest that they cannot do anything about the illegal animal trade, as the ethnic area in question has local autonomy.
Ammann said he sought to interview Chinese officials in Geneva about the issue, but said he was “given the runaround,” with no opportunity to ask questions.
Asked about what can be done to reduce or stamp out the illicit trade in wild animals, Ammann says that while education and cultural awareness can help in the long term, “what is needed now is enforcement, as time is running out for some of the animals, as we have seen from Mong La.”
Elsewhere, years of war in eastern Congo have seen gorilla numbers reduced drastically, according to activists, with rebels hunting the animals for food and for re-sale into the bushmeat trade. Chinese demand for ivory has seen elephant numbers drop as China expands its diplomatic and commercial presence across Africa. Elephant poaching is on the rise across Africa, 21 years after the ivory trade was outlawed. Last year, China approved 37 new retail ivory stores. However, China says it is committed to the ban on the ivory trade, and officials say that ivory seizures by Chinese customs officials have almost doubled in recent years.
Experts say the illicit trade piggybacks on lawlessness, state failure and political conflict. According to the CITES Web site: “The illegal wildlife trade that takes place around the world is often highly organized and sophisticated and can involve criminal gangs, armed with automatic weapons, who don’t hesitate to murder the wardens, game scouts or forest guards whose daily job it is to protect our planet’s natural resources.”
In the past, all too often, the response to such criminals has not been equally organized or sophisticated,” said Willem Wijnstekers, the secretary-general of CITES.
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