Weak implementation of the law and strong demand in neighboring China are fueling the illicit trade of endangered wildlife in Myanmar’s Shan State, according to shop owners in the regional town of Mongla, despite claims by local authorities that the practice has been stamped out.
Shan State’s Special Region 4, where the border town of Mongla is located, is under the administration of the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)—an ethnic army chaired by former Chinese national Sai Lin, who migrated to the area in the 1960s after being sent to China’s Yunnan province during the Cultural Revolution.
The NDAA was formed in 1989 after splitting with the Communist Party of Burma and on June 30 that same year marked the 30th anniversary of the group’s truce with Myanmar’s government with a ceremony at which Sai Lin pledged to preserve “eternal peace” in the region.
But peace has come at a cost. In exchange for a ceasefire with the NDAA, Myanmar’s government in essence granted Sai Lin a free hand and allowed him to build an empire of lawlessness propped up initially on the cultivation and sale of opium, and later on gambling revenues when the region became “opium free” in 1997.
Gambling is illegal in China, and casinos and other forms of entertainment in Mongla have drawn patrons from across the border who also seek out endangered wildlife products for their purported medicinal properties in local markets that operate largely unregulated, as authorities look the other way in exchange for bribes, despite claims by officials that the illegal trade has been eradicated.
During a press conference held at the conclusion of the June 30 anniversary event, Khan Maung, a spokesperson for the Information Office in Mongla, said that local residents have long hunted wild animals—including muntjac or “barking deer,” sambar, and Indian boar for food, and acknowledged that they had learned they could profit by selling their meat at area markets.
“At some point, the hill people wanted to earn money, so they brought [the animals] to the market,” he said.
“However, the global community objected to the practice, so we prohibited it and no one does it anymore.”
While muntjacs and the Indian boar are not considered endangered, sambar—a large deer with three-tined antlers—are categorized as “vulnerable” by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
But vendors at the Myoma Market in Mongla told RFA’s Myanmar Service that not only does the sale of muntjacs, Indian boar, and sambar continue, but a large variety of other, mostly endangered animals are also on offer to customers at the right price.
The vendors, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said authorities had declared a ban on the sale of wild animals 10 days prior to the June 30 anniversary event, which hosted dignitaries from across Myanmar, but that the trade had flourished prior to the decree.
“They won’t let us sell them until the end of the ceremony,” one vendor said ahead of the event.
“We have many to display, but they have stopped us [from doing so] for the moment … I have [ivory] tusks, as well as traditional medicines and other things, if you want them. I even have live animals.”
The vendor said he also had access to tiger parts and various reptiles, including tortoises with their shells.
“Everything is fine here—we have all kinds of animals, it’s just that we’re currently closed [due to the temporary ban],” he said.
In another market in the Nampan region of Mongla, an RFA reporter saw skins, claws, and horns from various endangered animals for sale, including from the critically endangered pangolin, all with prices listed in Chinese yuan.
A hunter from Magway region said he used to be able to kill various animals in the jungle around Special Region 4 to sell to vendors in the area, but that quarry had become scarce due to high demand.
“For internal organs from smaller animals, vendors will pay 200-300 yuan (U.S. $28-42),” he said.
“We sell them to [intermediaries], who might sell them to China, or distribute them to restaurants in Mongla.”
When asked about the claims made by vendors, Jay Gaung, a representative of Mongla’s Department of Justice, told RFA that the hunting and sale of endangered animals is not tolerated in the region.
“We don’t allow people to shoot wild animals—we confiscate their arms and give them prison terms,” he said.
But when pressed to provide details of relevant legal action against wildlife traders, he acknowledged that authorities “haven’t put anyone in jail,” adding that “we are currently educating [offenders].”
And when asked whether the illegal trade of endangered wildlife persists in the region, Jay Gaung answered, “not lately—this kind of thing took place in the past.”
RFA’s investigation of the endangered wildlife trade in Mongla came after Myanmar’s National Hluttaw, or parliament, approved a motion in December last year calling on the government to take “serious action” against wildlife trafficking.
Myanmar's Wildlife Protection and Protected Areas Law of 1994 was revised and enacted in May 2018, and the unlawful killing of animals is now punishable by up to seven years in prison and a 50,000 kyat (U.S. $33) fine.
But Mongla’s distance from the central government means that local authorities are less inclined to ensure those laws are implemented, particularly given how lucrative the illicit animal trade is because of Chinese demand.
On Dec. 31, 2017, China, the world’s largest ivory market, banned all domestic ivory sales.
But in October last year, conservation group Save the Elephants said the ban had done little to stop the “prolific growth” in trade in Mongla, where it said there had been a 60 percent growth in new ivory items seen for sale over the previous three years.
Reported by Kan Thar and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.