Repost from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/from-jungle-to-suitcase-southeast-asias-wildlife-faces-a-bleak-future/story-e6frg6z6-1226108592780
From jungle to suitcase, Southeast Asia’s wildlife faces a bleak future
- Sian Powell
- From: The Australian
- August 06, 2011 12:00AM
A panther seized from luggage at Bangkok airport. Picture: AFP/Ho/Freeland Foundation Source: AFP
FOUR leopard cubs, a sunbear cub, a marmoset and a baby gibbon: just some of the menagerie found in suitcases at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.
Hundreds of protected Indian and Burmese star tortoises, again found in baggage at the airport. A bear farm in Laos, where bear bile was routinely extracted for human health tonics, finally closed down by the authorities. Unregistered leopards found at a rural Thai tiger zoo long suspected of trafficking big cats. A truck in northeastern Thailand found to be carrying five boxes of monitor lizards, 17 boxes of pythons and 84 boxes of rat snakes. Two Vietnamese men arrested for killing 15 langurs in a national park.
These events of only the past few months represent a tiny slice of the vast Asian wildlife trade in poaching, smuggling and dealing in protected species and their organs, flesh, bones, skin and scales. The trade is huge, feeding a rapacious appetite for traditional medicines made from endangered species, as well as a hunger for ivory ornaments, wild meat and exotic pets.
Late last year, in an unguarded moment, a Vietnamese government official estimated that between 4000 and 4500 tonnes of wildlife were smuggled through Vietnam each year. Washington-based research and advocacy group Global Financial Integrity, using information provided by conservation groups Traffic and WWF, earlier this year said the illegal trade in wildlife generated up to $US10 billion ($9.3bn) annually. This pushes it into the top rank of illicit global markets, after counterfeiting and illegal trafficking in drugs, humans and oil.
Small scaly pangolins, which are eaten and used in traditional medicines, were until fairly recently heavily traded to China from Mekong nations, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Now, wildlife experts say, pangolins have become difficult to find in the Mekong region and the tiny frozen carcasses are more commonly sent from south Sumatra in Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines. Thailand, though, remains a hub for the illicit trade, with networks funnelling live and dead animals and animal parts to eager purchasers.
Last year, an Interpol probe, Operation Tram, zeroed in on traditional medicines that used ingredients from protected species. Australian seizures during the operation included hippopotamus penises and more than 100 boxes of bear bile. Two-thirds of illegal wildlife and wildlife product seizures in Australia (of a total 4014 seizures last year) are traditional medicines containing ingredients from endangered species.
Justin Gosling, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol’s environmental crime program, says wildlife crime must become a priority.
“Until five years ago, wildlife crime was not considered a big deal by enforcement agencies,” Gosling says. “Drugs and terrorism are seen as more important, but environmental crime is a far greater danger to communities.”
Police need to track the traders, arrest them, seize their mobile phones, retrieve all the numbers and arrest more people in the network, he believes. But corruption is rife, and the wildlife trade is widely seen by the criminal classes as low risk and a good earner.
Gosling says police across the region need to refocus their efforts on the wholesalers, rather than the poachers or transporters, who often escape prosecution and, even if convicted, are given lenient penalties. “Meanwhile, the big guys are still sitting in their luxury apartments,” he says.
Environment laws are regularly flouted across Asia. In Vietnam, it’s illegal to sell bears, to transport bears, to hunt bears and to extract bear bile. Yet bear bile tourism to Vietnam continues to flourish. Many people believe the bile, particularly that from wild bears, can cure numerous ailments.
A recent report by the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic found the bile of up to 3000 bears held by 750 Vietnamese bear farms was regularly extracted for tourists and other consumers. Bears are kept in farms for years on end, their bile extracted via a catheter or a permanent fistula or they are simply knocked out and their bile is removed. It is then imbibed by coachloads of tourists in search of a pick-me-up.
Bears are strong animals, Gosling says, otherwise the practice would kill them more quickly. In any case, the bear bile trade is one of the longest lasting cruelties in the repertoire of traditional medicine. And although the bears are kept on farms, that doesn’t mean they form a self-sustaining population. The Traffic report found only four of the 34 bear farms visited by the researchers had captive breeding programs.
Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director for Southeast Asia at Traffic, fears Asian wildlife has a bleak future.
He is overseeing a training session for Suvarnabhumi airport staff to learn how to recognise smuggled ivory. The lessons are bearing fruit: there have been several ivory seizures at the airport in recent months.
The illegal wildlife trade, Shepherd says, is thriving. “It’s not a pretty picture,” he says, citing tigers as an example. “They’re being absolutely hammered. We’ve lost so many tigers over the past couple of years. Anywhere there are tigers, there are people trying to kill them. Here in Southeast Asia, it’s the meat and bones. It’s something rare, something illegal; it’s impressive if you eat it. It’s worth a lot of money.”
The trade is pervasive. Thai tiger farms have been nabbed illegally selling surplus cubs; tiger-bone glue, made from bones that have been boiled, dried and ground into a powder, is a popular medicine in Vietnam; Chinese tiger farms reportedly serve “king meat” and tiger-bone wine in on-site restaurants. Gosling says Vietnam, China, Thailand and probably Burma and Laos have tiger farms or tiger parks that foster the trade in body parts.
Shepherd says it is too easy to trap animals. “Snaring animals is cheap, it’s the cost of the price of wire,” he adds. “It’s a brake cable for a snare. Dealers will often tell customers the birds or animals are captive-bred. But they’re very often not. It’s expensive to keep and breed animals in captivity; it’s much easier to catch them.”
Like Gosling, Shepherd thinks the key to putting a dent in the rampant trade is enforcement.
“I think people just don’t care. But they would care if they were in jail for five or 10 years and had time to think about it. Sure, I think we should keep educating the consumers, encouraging acceptable substitutes. But if you don’t treat it as a crime, it’s not going to change.”
In more central city markets, such as those in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, the illegal wildlife trade has been pushed underground. But the flourishing border markets, which Shepherd monitors, are notorious for their large and varied wildlife trade.
“It’s a free-for-all,” Shepherd says bleakly. “The last time I was in Mong La [a town on the China-Burma border], they brought a bear cub out. They killed it and took its gall bladder out. I took photos.”
Meanwhile, in Thailand, police colonel Kiattipong Khasam-Ang says he believes nearly all tiger parks in Thailand illegally sell cubs. Each cub fetches about 400,000 baht, or $12,500, depending on weight. Last year undercover police pretended to be from Thailand’s anti-government red-shirt movement and negotiated the purchase of a cub. Its blood, the undercover officers told the traders, would be used for a ritual. The traders were arrested, the cub saved. Recently environmental crime division officers announced they had arrested another Thai man in connection with the case.
The protected wildlife trade is worth a lot of money, he says, and the main criminal figures could be difficult to pin down.
“We have some names of Mr Bigs in Thailand,” Kiattipong adds. “One owns a tiger farm; she knows she is being investigated. Our work is ongoing.”
In recent years Chinese medicine has become a substantial field in Australia and degrees in Chinese medicine have even been introduced in some Australian universities. All practitioners have to be registered and Lin Tzi Chiang, president of the Federation of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Societies of Australia, says close to $200 million worth of traditional Chinese medicine and ingredients are imported into Australia each year. But, he says, threatened species form no part of those medicines.
Even so, each year Australian Customs officers seize thousands of bottles and packages of traditional medicines made from threatened species ingredients – meat, blood, skin, bile, and bone – as well as protected plant species. And these ingredients mostly come from Asia.
In Vietnam, environmentalists worry about the silence of the northern forests. A few years ago, Indonesian traders sent 25 tonnes of freshwater turtles to China each week, to be sold as food with medicinal properties. Now, conservationists say, there are too few remaining turtles to make the poaching worthwhile.
Police general Misakawan Buara, who commands a force of 470 staff at the Royal Thai Police division of natural resources and environment crime, has a fair idea who some of the big illegal wildlife traders are in Thailand, but he won’t name names.
“I cannot tell you, I don’t have proof. It’s very hard to catch people like that. I suspect [them], but maybe I will lose [in court].” He knows trading and poaching has reached alarming levels across the nation. “If we keep going like this, some time soon in Thailand there will be no animals.”