Big Cats, Big Business
Southeast Asia's Booming Illegal Wildlife Trade
Text by Nathan Paul Southern, Lindsey Kennedy
Photographs by Lindsey Kennedy

Big Cats, Big Business

The luxurious resort island of Gaya in Malaysian Borneo is the epitome of a tropical paradise. Just a 15-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu – the capital of Malaysia’s eastern State of Sabah – here the region’s famous wildlife has no qualms about asserting dominance over human guests. Mischievous monkeys pinch sunglasses, and occasionall – the staff warn – they’ll also grab an ice-cold beer. Bearded pigs congregate just yards from the beach restaurant. Rare birds and marine life abound.

Yet just 30 minutes into a hike through the dense jungle, our guide is dismayed. A makeshift camp and charred firewood lie abandoned beside a quiet stream: poachers.

Poachers? “This Is Normal” Says The Guide

“This is normal,” says the guide. They come on boats, he says, and are often in and out of the island before the rangers have the chance to catch them. It’s impossible to know what the poachers were after. Long-nosed proboscis monkeys – an endangered species – are common prey, but Gaya is also home to a spectacular array of birds, primates and exotic mammals, not to mention rare and expensive timber. Any of these could have been the target of the poachers. Even here, a tiny ecotourism bubble fringed by resorts that make it hard to moor a boat undetected, there is no escaping Southeast Asia’s booming illegal wildlife trade.

Southeast Asia’s Booming Illegal Wildlife Trade

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region accounts for under 3% of the world’s land mass but 25% of the global trade in wildlife. As a supplier, consumer and transit hub for the booming black market, Southeast Asia is one of the world’s primary marketplaces for capturing, selling, eating and shipping protected species to countries all over the world.

The outlook is not good. According to the European Commission, wildlife trafficking is now among the four biggest illegal industries in the world, generating $26 billion per year and growing. By far the greatest demand for endangered species products comes from China, and as the superpower’s population and economy blows up, so too does its demand for rare and protected animals

Export Market Number One For Rare Species: China

Rare species have long played a role in traditional Chinese medicine, but ordinary people didn’t always have the means to buy them. Today, though, the country’s expanding middle class has more money to spend. “The number of people with the ability to buy [wildlife products] has, I think, unquestionably increased,” says Dr Thomas Gray, Science Director of Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia. Coupled with improved infrastructure in the region, which makes it faster and easier than ever to move black market goods from one place to another, Southeast Asia’s wildlife populations and biodiversity risk total decimation.

Take the pangolin, a scaly mammal that resembles an anteater and is the world’s most trafficked animal. Southeast Asia is home to most of the 10,000 pangolins or more captured by poachers each year for their meat and scales, highly sought after as an ingredient both in traditional Chinese medicine and the manufacture of crystal meth. So much so, in fact, that all eight species of pangolin now risk being pushed to extinction. In the first half of 2019, over eight tonnes of scales from roughly 14,000 pangolins were seized in Hong Kong alone.

Thailand And Laos: Hundreds Of Tigers “Go Missing” Annually

Meanwhile in Thailand and Laos, hundreds of tigers “go missing” each year from breeding farms, supposedly established to protect the last of their dwindling numbers. Tigers are in high demand in traditional Chinese medicine, especially in the production of tiger bone wine, and there is a growing appetite for their meat. Legal tiger farms say they breed the rare cat to relieve the burden on those in the wild, but in reality this removes the stigma of trading tiger parts. In 2018 China formally relaxed the laws on importing tiger products, effectively introducing a legal way to trade the endangered species.

Often, the decline of a hunted species has a serious knock-on effect on the health of its wider ecosystem. The unique helmeted hornbill was once found in abudance throughout Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. The birds act as “farmers of the forest” by eating seeds and either regurgitating them or defecating throughout the trees, helping replenish biodiversity over several square miles.

Unfortunately for the hornbill, its skull is made of a similar substance to elephant ivory, but softer and easier to carve into ornamental designs. A symbol of wealth in China for centuries, the recent surge in demand has seen poaching levels rise dramatically, with the bird now critically endangered. This is a tragedy for the species, but also for Southeast Asia’s jungles. Accounting for 15% of the world’s biodiversity, the region is already suffering rapid deforestation. The decreasing numbers of fruit-eating animals like elephants, hornbills and deer exacerbates this detrimental impact on the forest and its ability to store carbon.

The Horrors Of The Illegal Wildlife Business

Seen from any angle, the illegal wildlife trade is a disaster. The depletion of species and biodiversity undermines any prospects of long term, maintainable economic development, making it “inherently unsustainable” according to the United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime (UNODC). The lasting impact on the environment removes a resource relied upon by local communities for generations while closing the door on potentially employment-generating opportunities, such as developing a lucrative ecotourism industry.

But it’s the promise of short-term cash that lures many poachers in the first place.

“One can talk about the damage to the environment and sometimes multiple repercussions to ecosystems and ultimately to the wildlife. But those long-term, large costs are often discounted for the immediate, very significant economic gain,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of the Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter it.

The bleak but pragmatic reality, explains Felbab-Brown, is that a person’s ability to feed, house and clothe their children, to afford medication or send relatives to hospital, will always overshadow other demands. “Conservation is a luxury they cannot afford,” she says.

The Hugely Profitable Wildlife Smuggling Business

Wildlife smuggling is certainly profitable. A recent report found that that the value of the trade has soared by 1,600% in a decade. A trade so lucrative can hardly go unnoticed by mafia groups for long.

“The level of organized crime in the trade is high,” says Southeast Asia Traffic Director Kanitha Krishnasamy. “We are talking about individuals and parties being able to acquire, accumulate, pack, store, transport, distribute and redistribute across continents, with numerous other steps in between this trade chain. This would be an impossible feat without a well-organized machinery at work.”

In fact, as law enforcement starts to take wildlife smuggling seriously, involving criminal groups – especially Chinese ones – has become a logistical necessity. So says Dr. Daan Van Uhm, Assistant Professor at the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology at Utrecht University. In fact, he says, there is evidence that wildlife smugglers and drug gangs have begun working together to smuggle high value products into China.

Collaboration with drug smuggling networks also means adopting their approach to business, with terrible consequences for forests and endangered species.

As Felbab-Brown explains, a criminal syndicate trafficking cocaine expects to lose 60% of its cargo to the authorities. To anticipate this, they simply order 60% more cocaine from the farmers that supply them. When you apply this to the wildlife trade, though, the same approach to product supply becomes catastrophic.

“If you’re assuming that in smuggling pangolin scales you will lose 50% of your shipment because 50% of your cargo will be discovered and seized, then you order 50% greater amount of pangolin to be killed,” she says. Clearly, any approach that focuses solely on seizures and not enough on dismantling the networks themselves is doomed to make the problem worse.

Chinese Tourism To Southeast Asia Boosts Demand For Illegal Wildlife Products

Another problem is that Chinese tourists and diaspora frequently carry demand with them. In Sihanoukville, a seaside Cambodian town now dominated by criminal gangs and sprawling Chinese-owned casinos, the amount of ivory available for sale is 11 times higher than it was just a few years ago.

“At the same time, the number of Chinese tourists has doubled,” explains Dr Gray. ”These things are probably not coincidences, particularly when you also see that the ivory ban in China is maybe displacing some of this market to the more poorly regulated countries of Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.”

Organized crime networks not only use Sihanoukville as a marketplace for ivory but as a global transit hub. The record-breaking seizure of 3.2 tonnes of Ivory from Mozambique in 2018 exposed the staggering extent of the trade.

“We have absolutely seen that the increased presence of Chinese nationals is associated with significant increases in poaching and wildlife consumption,” says Felbab-Brown.

Another striking example is the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone wedged between Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – and bordering towns such as Boten (in Laos) and Mong La (Myanmar).A multibillion-dollar joint venture between the Laotian government and the mega-corporation Kings Romans Group, a Hong Kong entity, here everything is Chinese: the language, money and even the time.

The arrangement was, officially, to broker investment into a remote corner of northern Laos. Shopping malls, industrial zones and even an international airport were part of the initiative’s proposals to boost economic growth in north-western Bokeo Province. Instead, it has been transformed into a playground for Chinese visitors wishing to gamble, solicit prostitutes in the town’s many new massage parlours, eat endangered animals and freely purchase tiger pelts and elephant tusks in open air markets. It has now become one of the world’s primary wildlife trafficking transit points.

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‘Wildlife Trafficking Is Flourishing’

“Wildlife trafficking is flourishing without any law enforcement activity in the area,” says Van Uhm. “So, you can buy basically anything you want quite easily. From rhino horn to ivory, to the hornbill.”

Even low-level business connections make it easier to feed demand elsewhere. Van Uhm describes how local villagers in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand developed links with Chinese middlemen involved in the trade, bridging the gap between poachers and end buyers.“Some Chinese migrated to other Southeast Asian countries and from there they also established illegal wildlife businesses, with small shops such as grocery shops and home decoration outlets as cover”, he explains.

Felbab-Brown agrees. “We have very much seen that wherever Chinese businesses increase their presence significantly, there is an increase in poaching and smuggling of particular local animals into China and East Asia,” she says.

What’s more, as part of its Belt and Road initiative, Beijing is investing billions in Southeast Asia, through railways, bridges and huge infrastructure projects. This will inevitably foster more and more businesses catering to Chinese tastes, including the illegal wildlife trade. Meanwhile, China’s growing influence over the region makes smaller governments reluctant to criticize the behavior of its emissaries.

Crafting An Effective Policy Response To Wildlife Trafficking

Global criminal networks unquestionably play a huge role in wildlife trafficking, but many experts are wary of taking a punitive approach.

“There is a failed policy shift towards projects that are about law enforcement and about kind of military style training,” explains Professor Rosaleen Duffy, a wildlife trafficking and poaching expert at the University of Sheffield. “It doesn’t tackle the kinds of inequality and poverty that might drive people into the poaching economy.” Far more helpful, she says, to treat this as a development issue, working on reducing demand and providing sustainable livelihoods.

Duffy stresses that headline-grabbing busts ignore common small-scale activities best addressed through education. “It might be a really enthusiastic plant trader who sells stuff on eBay,” she says. “The seller can then transport the illicit item, without always knowing they have committed an offense.” The knock-on impact can be just as damaging to the environment, but attracts no interest from government agencies.

Professor Tanya Wyatt, a Green Criminologist at Northumbria University and expert on the illegal wildlife trade, is more cynical. “It’s a funding issue,” she says. “If you are a victim of organized crime or fighting terrorism, chances are you’re going to get more money.”

It’s hard to dispute. The British government has invested over £23 million in 75 projects to combat the illegal wildlife trade since 2013. Only 14 of these projects, worth £4.4 million, have been aimed at reducing demand, community engagement or alternative livelihoods. The rest have primarily focussed on the organised crime element of the trade by targeting poachers, smuggling networks and money laundering, and by providing training and capacity-building to law enforcement.

Another problem is that laws intended to inhibit poaching are often ignored by local communities, who view them – not without justification – as a hangover of colonialism. As Duffy points out, many laws banning local communities from removing wildlife were initially created for the benefit of European hunters. These urgently need to be revised to tackle social and ecological issues on the ground today.

Ultimately, much like the global War on Drugs, ignoring the driving factors and simply fixating on enforcement is likely to be a losing battle.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the US has tremendous incentives, tremendous motivation to stop drug trafficking into the United States,” says Felbab-Brown. “They have devoted incredible amounts, on the order of $40 billion a year, towards that effort. This is a country with vast resources and a hundred percent motivation to accomplish it. Nonetheless, the supply of drugs to the United States has not abetted.”

So Far Prohibition Efforts Are Mostly Failing

To date, prohibition efforts have proved disappointing. China banned the import of ivory products in 2017, but while demand has almost halved, it remains at an unsustainable level. Worse, it hasn’t stopped poachers from actually killing elephants – they just use other parts of the animal. Vanda Felbab-Brown explains that traders have switched to producing jewellery made from elephant blood, skin and fat, successfully manufacturing a “fad” in China that didn’t exist before. This is especially bad news for the dwindling populations of Asian elephants across Southeast Asia. Since these don’t always have tusks, they used to be hunted less than their African cousins, but now they’re just as vulnerable.

Some conservationists believe providing legal avenues for buying endangered wildlife is the only way to curtail poaching. Strictly regulated, sustainable hunting of endangered species and farming rare animals in high demand present two possible alternatives to total bans.

Others fear that this grey area disguises or even legitimizes black market activity. Having illegal and permitted products side-by-side confuses the issue and sends the wrong message to consumers. Certificates of origin can be faked, gifting traffickers a way to transport and sell endangered animal parts with impunity.

“When you get into that grey area you have obvious loopholes for laundering and corruption,” says Wyatt. “I think that’s the biggest problem. When you have a captive industry that’s legal it’s in a place where there’s corruption, it’s never going to work.”

Slaughterhouses Disguised As Breeding Centers

Corruption is so rife that even breeding centers claiming to exist for conservation purposes are often caught slaughtering their animals for profit. The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that as much as 38% of seized tiger parts and live animals come from legal tiger farms. When the infamous “Tiger Temple”, a tourist attraction in Thailand run by monks, was shut down in 2016, officers discovered 40 dead cubs stored in a freezer, 20 more preserved in jars and 1,600 items made of tiger skin, bone and teeth.

Van Uhm describes visiting a tiger farm in the north of China where tiger bone wines were sold openly for several hundreds to thousands of euros per bottle. “They advertise it as Tiger Bone Wine, but it is labelled in Latin as containing ‘lion’”, he says. The mislabelling was designed to confuse law enforcement, but those working at the farm insisted it was the real thing.

Additional Wildlife Trafficking Export Markets: US And EU

While Chinese consumers are undoubtedly the worst offenders, demonizing them doesn’t help.

That’s partly because the EU and the US are also, as Wyatt says, “absolutely massive consumers of wildlife that should get their own houses in order,” but also because the problem can’t be tackled without their involvement and consent. The illegal wildlife trade can only end when poachers have better ways to earn moneyand when demand for their quarry ceases.

Until now, Chinese buyers have often been left out of the conversation. As Dr. Gray points out, “We need to be employing a few more Chinese in conservation NGOs in Cambodia to allow us to properly engage with this Chinese market that is unquestionably driving the wildlife trade.”

The Coronavirus Connection

There may be another, even more pressing reason for buyers to sit up and take notice. It appears that the illegal wildlife trade may now have triggered a major international health crisis.

For years, disease experts have warned that increasingly close contact between humans, livestock and wild animals risks exposing us to millions of unknown bacteria and viruses for which our immune systems are entirely unprepared. When these move from wildlife into the human body, they can mutate into potentially lethal “zoonotic diseases” such as anthrax, Ebola and SARS.

In China, pangolins trafficked from the wild are often sold live in open-air animal markets – including the now-notorious Wuhan market believed to be the source of the coronavirus epidemic that has killed nearly 1,000 people to date. Despite being peddled as a medicinal product, the latest research shows that these pangolins are probably the virus carriers that bridged the gap between bats and humans, leading to a total lockdown of one of China’s key industrial cities and over 30,000 cases of the virus in mainland China and beyond.

Clearly, transporting wildlife to places it shouldn’t be can have dire consequences, and making buyers understand that will have a much greater impact on ending the trade than a smattering of prosecutions. As Kanitha Krishnasamy puts it: “it’s not all just about the errant traders: it’s about time that consumers started becoming part of the solution and not the problem.”