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SOS Rhino : In the News : Demand for exotic dishes, potions imperils wildlife

Demand for exotic dishes, potions imperils wildlife

Associated Press
April 2, 2004, 8:50PM

TACHILEIK, Myanmar -- Furry bear paws lie next to neatly arranged skins of jungle cats, skulls of monkeys and horns of mountain goats. The parts of vanishing species from Southeast Asia's forests are laid out for Chinese buyers seeking sex boosters, cures for cancer and exotic food.

"Very strong. It can fight with a tiger, so it's good for sex," the vendor says, pointing to a pair of wild buffalo horns priced at $125 and explaining that in powder form they'll surely enhance virility given the animal's power.

A sizable quantity of wildlife is felled to supply dealers in this scruffy town on the Thailand-Myanmar border. But Tachileik is just one node of a trade network that funnels fauna and flora from across the region to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand in China.

There, millions of people still believe that rhino horn prevents convulsions, pickled turtle flippers increase longevity and fresh snake blood makes for a potent aphrodisiac. And with China's growing affluence, more can afford exotic wildlife dishes once served only at banquets of the elite.

Having strained China's domestic supply, the network's tentacles are extending to scoop up pangolins in Indonesia, snakes from Vietnam, dendrobium orchids in Laos and the few remaining tigers and bears in Myanmar.

"The biggest problem facing wildlife in Southeast Asia is its domestic consumption in China. The Chinese are vacuuming it up," says Steven Galster, who heads the conservation group WildAid Asia.

Despite some efforts by the Chinese government to curb the trade, ecologists agree the current harvest is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to the eradication of species.

"It doesn't look good. We are at the stage where a lot of species are on the edge. There haven't been a lot of extinctions, but there will be soon," says James Compton, who heads the Southeast Asian office of Traffic, an international treaty agency that monitors trade in wildlife.

The region's pangolins, snakes and freshwater turtles are now the most intensely sought-after species, having eclipsed the trade in tiger bone, rhino horn and bear gall bladder due to decimation of the latter species and tougher policing of the smuggling of those parts.

The harvesters of wildlife in Southeast Asia are generally poor villagers and fishermen who sell to local markets or small-time dealers, who pass the products into the well-established, sophisticated trade networks crisscrossing the region.

The big-time operators, WildAid and Traffic say, often employ the same routes used for smuggling drugs, people and even weapons, seeking passages where corruption is rife and law enforcement lax. Authorities have nabbed shipments of drugs stuffed into dead animals and of frozen shrimp with iced pangolin or snakes layered beneath them.

The routes are sometimes long and circuitous. A wildlife shipment from Sumatra in Indonesia may pass through Malaysian Chinese middlemen in Kuala Lumpur who bribe airport officials and fly the cargo by private plane to Vientiane, Laos. It can then be trucked to Vietnam and finally to China through thriving Vietnamese-Chinese wildlife ventures. Singapore and Thailand also are important transit countries.

En route, documents are forged or altered to comply with the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which most countries in the region, including China, have signed.

Some documents falsely list the source of flora and fauna to farms to get around trade in species proscribed under CITES although these may actually have originated in the wild or been "laundered" through enterprises that breed musk deer, bears, tigers and other endangered species.

On farms in China, thousands of live bears are "milked" for their bile, said to fight liver disease, through steel catheters implanted in their gall bladders.

Although enforcement efforts have been stepped up in recent years, Compton says far more manpower and funds are needed, especially in the wake of trade liberalization in the region and the proliferation of air and road links with China.

"Everyone has been biting around the edges, catching the poor villager or trader, the little guys, while the big shipments go free. It's just like the early days of the war on drugs," Galster says.

As in the drug war, conservationists say, strikes against suppliers must be complemented by education to lessen demand.

"When the buying stops, the killing can, too," is the theme of a widely shown WildAid television spot featuring Asian and international celebrities such as kung fu actor Jackie Chan. Peter Benchley, author of the best-selling novel Jaws, urges people to shun shark's fin soup.