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31 May 07
Wildlife smuggling in Asia still a roaring trade
by Kevin McElderry
Carved up for the dinner table, ground up for medicine or simply sold off as exotic pets, Asia's endangered species are at the core of a lucrative smuggling trade that shows little sign of easing off.
An abandoned wreck of a boat off China's southern coast last month exposed its breadth: on board, dying in the baking sun, were more than 5,000 lizards, tortoises and pangolins, not to mention 21 bear paws. Once ashore they would likely have ended up as food or used in traditional medicines.
It is not just small animals. Tigers are dying out in India and Nepal. At least 1,000 orangutans are trafficked out of Indonesia's Kalimantan province alone every year. Bears are hunted for their bile, rhinos for their horn.
"People see it as quick cash with low risk," said Petch Manopawitr, deputy director of Thailand's Wildlife Conservation Society.
Smuggling is at the centre of a three-yearly conference starting Sunday in The Hague under the auspices of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
China has long been seen as a magnet for wildlife smuggling because of its traditional medicines and taste for exotic animals.
"Wildlife is basically defenceless as there's no animal protection law in China," said Qin Xiaona, head of the Capital Animal Care Association group. "Some nouveau riche want to eat what ordinary people can't eat in order to show off their wealth."
Experts reckon up to a tonne of pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are smuggled over the Thai-Laos border every month, many for use in medicines.
"The biggest demand comes from China," said Chairul Saleh of welfare group WWF. "They don't only want the scales but also the meat for consumption."
Tiger bones have been used to treat rheumatism and arthritis and the penis is said to increase male potency. Bear bile is used for liver complaints and fatigue, deer musk for treatment of strokes, rhino horn against inflammation. Pangolins have reputed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. Animal pelts -- bears, tigers, Tibetan antelopes -- are also prized, while the rhino horn is used to make dagger handles in Arab nations, fetching up to 14,000 dollars on the black market.
Thai police commander Thanayod Kengkasikij said a crackdown simply ups the allure, noting that "the increasing value (of the animals) is attracting more criminals."
Asep Rahmat Purnama, the executive director of wildlife watchdog ProFauna, estimated the trade in Indonesia as worth a billion dollars a year.
In India, which has 60 percent of the world's remaining tiger population, conservation efforts have been hampered by poachers seeking the pelt -- which can sell for up to 16,000 dollars -- claws and bones. Officials surveying rare Royal Bengal tigers say their population may have declined as much as 50 percent from the 3,700 estimated in 2002.
In Taiwan, a poacher can hope to sell a bear for 4,500 dollars.
In Malaysia, said Chris Shepherd of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, the most sought-after creatures are water turtles, tortoises, many species of snake, pangolins, the Sumatran rhino, tiger and samba deer. He said crime syndicates were becoming increasingly involved.
The effect is to strip some countries of native wildlife -- only 50 to 150 tigers survive in the wild in Vietnam, according to official and environmental agencies.
In Thailand, the focus is shifting to exotic pets such as wild birds and rare reptiles because species such as tigers and pangolins are disappearing, said Tassanee Vejpongsa, of US-based group WildAid.
"We do believe that the number of animal species in Thailand has gone down to the point it can't really be a supplier any more," Tassanee told AFP. Similarly in Cambodia.
"We are not seeing tigers and leopards in the trade because they have been almost wiped out," said Nick Marx, also of WildAid. But it remains a lucrative business. "If they weren't making a lot of money they wouldn't be doing it."
Another problem cited by officials and groups in nations such as Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Thailand is that legislation is often undermined by weak enforcement or local corruption.
"There is an indication of the involvement of customs or other officials in wildlife trafficking, especially for bigger animals such as orangutans," said Indonesia's Purnama. After all, he said, when creatures like that are being smuggled out "it is impossible not to detect them before air transport."
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