China Wolfs Down Southeast Asia’s Wildlife

This is the first installment of the author's series on how China chew its way through the natural resources of its Asian neighbors. Check out the other stories in this series:

There is a monster chewing its way through the wildlife of its smaller, weaker Southeast Asian neighbors. The monster can change forms—like a shape-shifter—but it goes by one name: China. The region’s wildlife is rapidly disappearing, being sucked into the vortex of the illegal wildlife trade that leads to China.

In the Burmese border town of Mong-La, everything from tree-dwelling civets to clouded leopards, from tiger claws to elephant skin, and from pangolin scales to bear gall bladder is on sale, with the vast majority of customers coming over the border from Yunnan. National Geographic just this month ran a stunning if disturbing article on the plight of the “dinosaur of the skies”—the majestic Helmeted Hornbill.

The Hornbills’ numbers are crashing and in a few short years have been downgraded from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The Chinese are after their heads, literally. Their solid red casques are considered “red ivory” They are actually made of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails and, incidentally, rhino horn, and rhinoceros are another species which have been virtually wiped off the face of the Southeast Asian map thanks to a misplaced belief that ground rhino horn can cure cancer and a host of other human ailments.

So dire is the situation of the Helmeted Hornbill that governments in this species range (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, and Myanmar) have recently formed a joint management and conservation plan to attempt to ensure that this otherworldly bird has a future outside of China’s markets. Asia Sentinel also published a story specifically about the hornbill hunters of Sumatra last year, and how those hornbill heads are sold to Chinese middlemen in the city of Medan.

Mainland Chinese investors in Singapore and Chinese Singaporeans are buying—mostly illicitly—so much sand from Cambodia’s coastal Koh Kong province that irreparable environmental damage is now becoming manifest. A well-informed source told me that one sand barge was so enormous that it took eight tugboats to pull it to Singapore. Activists from the NGO Mother Nature were arrested after filming illegal sand barges in Cambodia, and some of this group’s members had to flee to Thailand. The removal of riverbed sand—which is prized construction material—annihilates the river’s ecology, decimating fish populations and the wildlife that depends on them, such as river dolphins, otters, and fishing cats. Chinese investors are also behind the recent clearing of mangrove forests in Koh Kong, another nefarious activity that will cause significant environmental degradation.

Chinese developers, backed by Beijing, have begun the initial stages of construction on a highly controversial hydroelectric dam in Sumatra’s Batang Toru forest, which is home to a Critically Endangered population of Sumatran Orangutan, as well as Sumatran tigers and Helmeted Hornbills—all listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, with the last two being Critically Endangered largely due to Chinese demand for their carcasses. Now they are all even more endangered as a result of this dam, which will flood prime forest habitat and put the 800 or so orangutans—as well as other species—at immediate risk of extinction (in the case of this sub-species orangutan, which is only found in Batang Toru) and local extinction (for tigers and helmeted hornbills).

Over in Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, China Power Investment, a hydroelectric company, is investing US$17 billion in a massive dam project on the Kayan River, a project which will flood primary forest in the Heart of Borneo and put a myriad of wildlife species at risk and will forever change the ecology of this region. Chinese companies are also connected with illegal logging in prime Bornean orangutan habitat in West Kalimantan’s Sungai Putri Landscape, a debacle which has been ongoing for over two years’ now.

The ghastly trade in elephant skins from Myanmar has been driven largely by Chinese demand, as is so often the case for wildlife products from the region, and Burmese timber continues to make its way into Yunnan. Much has already been written about the Chinese enclave in northern Laos where casinos also serve up barbecued tiger, bear, and other protected species. One can only imagine what is being taken out of the surrounding seas and forests in the Chinese enclaves of Sihanoukville and Koh Kong in Cambodia, not to mention the South China Sea.

Mong-La in Myanmar, Botun in Laos, Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and Medan in Sumatra all serve as major conduits—some might even say black holes—for the region’s wildlife into the great Chinese illegal wildlife market (vortex). The “sucking sound” is heard loudly in these places today, just as it always has in Bangkok’s Chinatown and continues to be heard there today.

Sea turtles, sea horses, sea cucumbers, shark fins, yellow-margined box turtles in Taiwan, tiger bones and furs and penis, pangolin scales, rhinoceros horn, elephant skin and ivory, clouded leopard pelts, helmeted hornbill casques, bear bile, deer antlers, red coral, rosewood trees, massive cave-riddled limestone outcrops (which are ancient coral reefs) ground up into construction powder, and even sand itself as mentioned at the beginning…are all being robotically sucked up in the most hideous vortex of greed and ignorance the world has ever known. If it moves, eat it; if it doesn’t move, build with it. That seems to be the Chinese mantra. Use, use, use, until there is nothing left to use anymore.

China is building so many dams on the Mekong River that this great river of the world will likely be rendered unrecognizable in the near future, and its plans for the Brahmaputra, which spills out of Tibet and into India and Bangladesh, and other Himalayan rivers, are just as scary. And it is worth noting that the Brahmaputra runs through India’s world class Kaziranga National Park, and a significant drop in the river levels there could imperil Asia’s largest population of rhinoceros, as well as further endanger tigers, elephants, leopards, and a host of other species that find refuge in Kaziranga.

China is also far and away the biggest polluter of the world’s oceans, dumping many times more plastic into the seas than any other country on the planet. Research carried out in China shows that air pollution there is so bad that it is equivalent to losing a year’s worth of education. Chinese factories are also pumping out massive amounts of the banned ozone-killing chemical CFC-11, threatening to erase over a decade’s progress in repairing damage to the ozone layer caused by this substance.

The planet, apparently, is just a place to trash, with the skies a vast chimney and the oceans the toilet bowls. This is not, of course, an attitude unique to China (though the consumption of exotic wildlife is, with Vietnam in second place), but because of China’s size and rising wealth—and the accompanying desire for more consumer products and other forms of wealth like cars and additional homes—this country’s footprint on the Earth will be gargantuan, and most likely irreparable.

Are there any signs of hope? The Chinese appear to be walking away from a dreadful hydroelectric project in Nepal, and Malaysian PM Mahathir has shut down several key Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in his country that were part of the supposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), all of which would have caused environmental damage, would have threatened wildlife, and plunged the country deep into debt. Mahathir also recently made a statement casting doubt on whether “foreigners” (Chinese) would get visas to live in the massive Forest City project in Peninsular Malaysia. More Southeast Asian countries need to carefully scrutinize any BRI projects lest they become “debt traps.” From an environmental perspective, the BRI is just about the worst thing that could possibly happen.

China itself is moving to protect what remains of its intertidal mudflats on the coast of the Yellow Sea, which are vital stopover points for migratory shorebirds. However, in North Korea, which still has vast intact tidal mudflats, Chinese investment threatens—and already is—transforming these into places where migrating birds cannot stopover. The trashing of Tibet continues unabated.

And of course China’s trashing of the natural world isn’t limited to Asia. Jaguars are being slaughtered for their fangs, which are sold as trinkets to Chinese consumers, and this is putting pressure on the largest wild cat of South and Central America. The vaquita porpoise is down to a dozen individuals in Mexican waters, thanks to Chinese superstitious beliefs in the medicinal use of its swim bladder.

Nearly 100 African elephants were recently found slaughtered in Botswana with their tusks missing, which are probably already in China or Hong Kong, while fleets of government subsidized long-distance fishing vessels scour the Earth’s oceans, plundering the most remote corners and stealing from the exclusive zones of sovereign nations. I could go on, but that’s another article.

Some can argue that we need China’s cooperation, so perhaps it is better not to call the country out the way I have. Cooperation is needed, that’s true. But there is no guarantee that the world going to get it, or at least anywhere near in the amount that is needed, or get any meaningful cooperation at all, for that matter.

What will work? Economic sanctions? Good luck with that. Who has the guts to follow through with the tough sanctions that might force real, meaningful changes in China? Maybe all we can really do is be ecotourists and see what remains before it’s gone.

Nonetheless, fight the good fight. It’s worth fighting, even if the chances of success are slim.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can find him on Twitter, and you can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.