By: Michele Penna

Mong La, a boomtown on the border between Myanmar and China, is notorious for a number of reasons from rampant prostitution to a booming gambling industry. But the town’s best-known trade is in illegally purchased wildlife, a business that has turned the former village into an international market for endangered animals. 

Among the latter are species such as tigers and elephants listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which covers animals and plants at risk of extinction. Others, including pangolin, one of Mong La’s most popular products, fall under Appendix II, meaning they are not currently at risk, but may be – all the more so if wildlife markets keep on running their operations.

In Mong La no effort is made to hide illegal transactions. On the contrary, illegal wildlife is advertised and widely available. Both live animals and their mutilated limbs are sold in specialized restaurants, shops and in the central market, where hawkers peddle pretty much anything that can be hunted in the jungle. Leopard skulls are displayed next to deer horns, bamboo rats squirm in cages, and large turtles are sold for their meat at $80 per half a kilogram. “That is RMB1,600  (US$239)” says a street vendor, pointing to a young crocodile lurking in a pink bucket. The reptile is set to become someone’s lunch, just like two freshly-chopped bear paws on a table close by. Once on a restaurant’s table, the latter can be worth up to US$60 dollars. 

The buyers are nearly all mainland Chinese who cross the border to trade and gamble, aware that their presence – and especially their money – are welcome by the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), a rebel group born out of the disintegration of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989. The NDAA has signed a ceasefire with the former military regime and enjoys autonomy in doing business and administering its territory, which is known officially as “Special Region Number 4.”

The town’s lack of law enforcement, its proximity to China and Beijing’s inability – or unwillingness – to seal the border have created an ideal market for wildlife buyers, luredby the prospect of acquiring species that would be either impossible to find or unaffordable at home. As the owner of a restaurant puts it: “Pangolin here is RMB600 for half a kilogram, it is the cheapest place to buy it. If I sold it in China, it would cost RMB5,000.” But if he did, he would have a lot of trouble with the Chinese police, as the unregulated trade of pangolins is a criminal offense in the People’s Republic.

Customers look for trophies to bring back home and buy ingredients used in traditional medicine, such as elephant skin and tiger wine, which are believed to relieve stomach pain and enhance men’s sexual performances, respectively. Sold by the glass, tiger wine is preserved in transparent tanks where the skeleton of a large cat is immersed in an alcoholic concoction of herbs. There are several shops selling it, and in one case a single tank contained as many as four tiger skeletons – a worrying number, since wild tigers number fewer than 4,000 worldwide.

Profits generated by trafficking in Mong La are certainly significant, though exact numbers remain elusive. The town is part of a long chain of trafficking businesses, feeding an industry which, according to Nicholas Cox, Conservation Programme Manager with WWF Myanmar, “is worth millions. And billions globally.”

A recent study published in Global Ecology and Conservation analyzed  several seizures of pangolin and pangolin scales in China, India, Myanmar and Thailand – all of which were related to Myanmar, either as the source country or as a trafficking route – between 2010 and 2014, reporting that 4.3 tonnes of scales and 518 whole pangolins were found, for a total value of more than US$3 million.

But Mong La is not a concern only for Myanmar and neighboring countries. Buoyed by growing demand – possibly linked to China’s economic boom – traders are now searching far and wide for supplies to prop up their inventories. As Dr. Chris Shepherd, Regional Director for Southeast Asia with the environmental organization TRAFFIC, puts it: “Mong La is one of the largest markets in the region and is switching from a local market to internationally sourced animals.”

A look at the fancy ivory shops around the wet market confirms this suspicion. Retailers sell hundreds of pieces, shaped as laughing Buddhas, dragons and flowers, for prices varying from US$50 to hundreds of dollars. But artifacts from Myanmar seem to be the exception rather than the rule, as vendors say most of the ivory is imported from abroad.

“No no, this comes from Thailand. There is some some from Myanmar, but very little,” sais one seller. “It is all from Africa,” says another, showing a line of necklaces made with elephant teeth and bones.

An earlier report by TRAFFIC suggested that part of the ivory may be trafficked from the African continent into China and then transported to Myanmar, where it can be sold without permits. In a strange twist on globalization, the pieces are then taken back to China by private citizens.

Attention to wildlife trafficking is on the increase both in Myanmar and worldwide, but in Mong La the only tangible results are angry stares from vendors whenever a foreigner approaches, and even a call by Myanmar’s new President, Htin Kyaw, to crack down on illegal wildlife trade has so far gone unanswered.

Given that the central authorities do not control the area, a solution would be having the NDAA itself crack down on the market, or, as observers argue, a stricter policy on the part of the People’s Republic, which is both the main source of demand  for Mong La’s items and one of the world’s largest markets for wildlife.

“In the near future, China must crack down on movement across the border,” Shepherd said “The demand must be cut off and the border sealed to wildlife trafficking. These markets really undermine efforts to preserve wildlife in the region and there would be no reason for that market to exist if the border was not open.”