Illegal wildlife trade on increase: govt
By Ei Ei Toe Lwin
August 22 - 28, 2011
Chinese medicines containing tiger and rhino parts confiscated by authorities in the United States.
TRADE in endangered or rare animals is on the increase despite stronger enforcement of Myanmar’s anti-trafficking laws in recent years, the Ministry of Forestry’s top anti-trafficking official said last week.
About half of the convictions made under anti-wildlife trafficking laws involve the smuggling of rare and endangered turtles and tortoises but trade in snakes and elephant parts was also common, said U Nay Myo Shwe, a range officer at the ministry’s Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division.
“About 50 percent of the arrests we make are in relation to turtle and tortoise trafficking,” he said. “Trafficking of wildlife has increased in recent years and this is reflected in the higher number of arrests.”
“The increase is largely because of higher demand, especially from China, where animal parts are used for food and medicine.”
Other species targeted by wildlife traffickers include the Javan rhinoceros, Asian elephant, Asian golden cat, Bengal tiger, leopard, pangolin and brown antlered deer, as well as some types of orchid.
Figures from the ministry show that from January 2010 to April 2011, the most recent month for which figures were available, 22 individuals were convicted of attempting to smuggle 3725 turtles or tortoises out of the country.
Under the Protection of Wild Animals, Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Law promulgated in 1994, it is illegal to kill, hunt or illegally possess protected animals or plants, and those convicted of violating the law face up to seven years imprisonment and a fine of K50,000.
In 2009, 26 people were convicted under the 1994 law but this rose to 35 in 2010. To April this year, 10 had been convicted.
The majority of arrests are made in border towns, such as Muse on the China-Myanmar border, U Nay Myo Shwe said. “Traders from [China and Thailand] visit Myanmar and purchase animal parts and wild plants from local traders, who get them from hunters.”
However, no foreign nationals have so far been arrested in connection with wildlife trafficking because they normally pay a courier to bring the items over the border after making the purchase, he said.
“Foreign traders order the animals or plants they want and they wait on their side of the border,” he said. “We usually catch local traders when they are about to cross the border, especially in Muse, Kengtung and Tachileik. Local traders cross the borders in cars with live animals and animal parts packed in bags. Sometimes we make the arrest with a tip-off and sometimes we catch them with surpise inspections.”
He said more regional cooperation was needed to stem the trade.
“The ministry is negotiating with the Chinese government to control this illegal market … we are also trying to solve the problem with ASEAN member countries.”
Conservation specialist U Myint Shwe told The Myanmar Times trafficking posed a major threat to Myanmar’s 32 turtle and tortoise species, several of which are critically endangered.
“Most turtle are now critically endangered because they have lost their habitats and they are poached by humans – their body parts are used in producing traditional medicine,” he said.
Sixteen of these species are found in Rakhine State, where U Myint Shwe is involved in a wildlife conservation program with the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association, Rakhine Coastal Region Conservation Association and Instituto Oikos, an Italian non-government organisation.
“There are two markets: food and fancy pets. Prices for pets are higher, and the most expensive species are the Rakhine forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) and yellow tortoise (Indotestudo elongate). The yellow tortoise’s shell is very expensive in China because Chinese are superstitious about it; they think that these shells will bring good fortune. Chinese astrologers also use them to predict fortunes,” he said.
“It is difficult to say the price because it depends on the market; endangered species in particular are more expensive. Residents and hunters sell them at low prices, maybe K100,000 or K200,000, and then they are resold in places like Muse.”
He said turtles and tortoises were particularly susceptible to wildlife trafficking. “They can be found easily because of deforestation; they’ve lost a lot of their habitat. They are also easy to trade because they are silent and easy to catch.”
U Win Naing Thaw, director of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division, said the Forest Department had in recent years recruited and trained more field rangers and staff in wildlife conservation, law enforcement, and monitoring techniques in cooperation with international non governmental organisations in order to prevent trafficking more effectively.
“But we have some challenges in protecting wildlife in … protected areas. We still don’t have enough staff to patrol the forests, some of which are many thousands of square miles,” he said. “Some local itinerants enter the forests and hunt and steal wild plants and animals. Most of them don’t know about the laws,” said U Win Naing Thaw.
He said the department had created a mobile education team to conduct awareness programs and sometimes gave only a warning to those convicted of trafficking. While arrests are made by local police, the department advises on what charges should be laid against the offender under the 1994 law.
In 2007, the government established a National Wildlife Law Enforcement Task Force comprised of representatives from seven government departments to better combat the illegal market for wildlife and wild plants.