DVB Multimedia Group

Burma emerging as wildlife trafficking hub

This undated handout image shows Chinese medicines, containing tiger and rhino parts, confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: Reuters)

As Burma’s President Htin Kyaw called for an end to poaching and the illegal trade in endangered species, conservationists say the country is fast becoming a major trafficking route for wildlife products entering the Chinese market.

Speaking at an event in Naypyidaw to mark World Environment Day on Sunday, Htin Kyaw drew attention to fact that the domestic trade in wildlife products is taking place on the doorstep of Burma’s largest city, with wild elephants being poached for their ivory in forests just outside of Rangoon.

Driving the trade is the skyrocketing price of ivory and other increasingly rare animal products in the Asian wildlife black market. Ivory is now valued at around US$2,200 per kilogram, while rhino horn fetches around $60,000 – more than the price of gold or platinum.

In addition to local poaching, there has also been an alarming growth in international species that are trafficked through Burma, according to TRAFFIC, an international network that monitors the wildlife trade.

“More recently we are seeing a real increase in high-value products that are clearly in demand in China which are being sold through Burma, probably because of weaker enforcement in places like Mong La,” Chris Shepherd, the South-East Asia regional director of TRAFFIC, told DVB on Monday.

Everything from African ivory and rhino horns to otter skins, bird bills from Indonesia, and Tibetan antelope horns is available in markets within walking distance of Burma’s border with China, says Shepherd, adding that bears and pangolins are especially in need of urgent protection in Burma, as demand from China surges.

“Bears in Asia are being hammered and Burma is one of the top-4 priority countries for protecting bears,” says Shepherd. The gall bladder of bears is used in Chinese medicine and the paws are eaten as a high-end delicacy.

In his speech, the president called for stronger enforcement of laws aimed at protecting endangered species, highlighting a major weakness in the country’s conservation efforts to date.

“Wildlife crime has traditionally not been considered a serious crime in the past. Although law enforcement has increased, we need to keep pressure on prosecution rates,” says Shepherd.

According to official government data, Burmese authorities took action on only 189 cases of illegal wildlife trafficking between 2010 and 2016.

Building awareness of animal conservation into the curriculum of schools and enforcement agencies like the police and customs academies is one initiative suggested by TRAFFIC to aid in the fight against the illegal trade.

“Conservation is a really urgent issue and conservation and enforcement agencies should be coming together to put a lot more focus on Burma and its neighbouring trade partners to stop this illegal trade,” said Shepherd.

The wildlife trade is valued as a $20 billion industry and was this year’s theme for World Environment Day, which had the slogan, “Zero Tolerance for Illegal Wildlife Trade”.