Q&A: Endangered wildlife trading at the Myanmar-China border
Alex Hofford reports on the elephant skin, giant flying squirrels and Tibetan antilope horns sold in the lawless border areas
Hong Kong-based conservation photojournalist Alex Hofford visited the turbulent and crime-ridden border area of Shan State Special Region Four, between China and Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, to report on the rampant trade in endangered species there. He shared his impressions from both sides of the border with the South China Morning Post:
Where is the market seen in the video and what is for sale there?
I visited two markets. One in Burma [Myanmar], one in China. The one in the video is in Burma. Alas I do not have video of the one in China. I found pieces of elephant skin, bundles of porcupine quills and a lot of muntjac antlers, clouded leopard and golden cat skins, pangolin scales, giant flying squirrel, green-pigeons and Tibetan antelope horns. Real and fake ivory jewellery and fake tiger canines were also being also sold.
Why are these goods traded there?
The goods are traded in Mong La, Burma, because it is a lawless black hole where all kinds of illegal activities can thrive; drugs production and trafficking (heroin and methamphetamine), people trafficking (sex workers), arms trafficking and illegal wildlife products. It is at the crossroads of Burma, Laos and China, and as such it is an ideal spot where illegal trade routes intersect.
Where do these goods come from and who buys them?
I understand that much of the products for sale in the market in Mong La are sourced in the forests and jungles of the surrounding countries and regions: India, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Tibet, as well as of course Burma and Laos. It is big business, and according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the illegal wildlife trade is annually worth US$213 billion [HK$1.7 trillion].
What are the prices there and in China?
It was difficult to gather prices and shoot at the same time, so I only have one price comparison. A tiger skin in Mong La costs 50,000 yuan [HK$62,640], yet over the border in China it can fetch upwards of 200,000 yuan [HK$250,600]. In the market in Daluo, you can get all the things that you can buy in Mong La, but at a significant mark-up.
I didn't see tiger skins, but the local traders there can get anything for you if you ask them, as all they have to do is go over the hill to Burma and back again to get one for you. Pangolin scales are popular.
Were buyers, sellers aware they were trading in endangered species?
Yes, everyone involved knows it is an illegal trade, buyers and sellers alike. It would be great if the Chinese government could do a proper crack down on Daluo market and put more effort into enforcing CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] in that part of Yunnan province.
If China could stop all the illegal wildlife products coming into China in that border region it could put a stranglehold on the market in Mong La, Burma, and the business would possibly dry up. But I suspect the reason this continues to thrive is corruption among the local authorities (police, border guards) in China and the National Democratic Alliance army [an armed rebel group] who control nearby Mong La. It is difficult for the authorities in Beijing to properly enforce such a region so far away from the capital.