By Myat Moe Aung, The Myanmar Times
Myanmar has become an important transit point for the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The UNODC released a report this month that said the number of wildlife trafficking seizures in Myanmar is considerably lower than those made elsewhere in the Mekong sub-region but the country is an increasingly important transit point for the illicit wildlife trade.
From 2013 to 2017, officials seized 34 shipments of pangolin scales and other parts, totalling more than 1.2 tonnes.
Myanmar also has a modest illegal trade in elephant skin, which is often found for sale in popular markets in special economic zones such as Mine Lar and Tachileik in Shan State.
“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.
He added, “This means the impact on Myanmar’s wildlife is devastating. To save our wildlife we need to work together across borders to protect our wildlife, stop poaching and end this insidious trade.”
WWF and fellow conservation partners are working to support the government in the fight against wildlife trafficking through training, capacity-building and public awareness campaigns, such as Voices for Momos and the Yangon Elephant Museum. Myanmar is trying to reduce or eliminate the illegal trade by burning US$1.15 million (K1.7 billion) worth of elephant tusks and other wildlife parts that were seized this year, a Forest Department official said.
The first such event took place in Nay Pyi Taw in October 2018, when 277 ivory pieces, 227 bones of elephants and other animals, 45 animal hides, 1544 horns, 45.5 kilograms of pangolin scales, and 128 other parts were destroyed.
The second event took place in Yangon in March, when 219 ivory pieces, 210 pieces of elephant trunk, 527 tiger and other animal parts, 800 horns of various kinds, 134.7kg of pangolin scales, and 241 other parts, totalling 766.11kg, were burned.
U Ohn Win, minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said at the event in Yangon, “We are trying to prevent and take action against illegal wildlife trafficking with relevant departments and non-governmental organisations. But the public also needs to cooperate to ensure the success of this effort.” Recent seizures show that the wildlife trade is conducted by individuals who make direct contact with specialty suppliers, sometimes through scrap yards, taxidermy shops, pet fairs, warehouses and health clinics.
Wildlife traffickers in Southeast Asia have a comparative advantage due to strong local demand and reliable local supply within the region, making it home to some of the world’s largest illicit wildlife transactions.
Southeast Asia also plays a key role in the transportation of high-value items – highly endangered and illegally-sourced African wildlife – to the region, other parts of Asia, and the rest of the world.
Ivory is traded openly in eight of the 10 ASEAN members, excluding Brunei and Malaysia. Law enforcement in Asia and Africa makes large ivory seizures every year, many weighing more than 500kg.
The most significant ivory seizures, sometimes along with smaller quantities of rhino, have been made in Vietnam and Hong Kong, China, but also in mainland China, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
These legal domestic markets are usually subject to national regulations that vary from country to country, and are much smaller than the estimated illicit market, as indicated by the amount of contraband seized. Estimates suggest tens of thousands of elephants are illegally killed each year, producing hundreds of tonnes of ivory for export, with annual seizures amounting to tens of tonnes, the report said.
The illegal trade in pangolins has grown over the past decade, and more than one million of the animals are estimated to have been killed.
Another species of concern for Southeast Asia are tigers. 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 Asian living in other countries.
The global population of Asiatic black bears declined by more than 30 percent over the past 30 years.
The most important illicit wildlife market in Southeast Asia is China, including Hong Kong, where more than 90pc of buyers are tourists from the mainland.
Vietnam is also an important market. Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and increasingly Laos and Malaysia are major transit hubs. Additional key transit points include the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, according to the report.