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Christmas in Purgatory: Investigating the Illegal Wildlife Market in Mong La, Burma

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Category: News and Politics Tim Gorski's blog in myspace By: Timothy Gorski

As wide eyed kiddies in the west open gifts and parents slurp eggnog, far from the cozy homes with tinseled trees and stocking lined mantles there is a lucrative trade in endangered wildlife being conducted, a trade that threatens the jungles of southeast Asia.

The paper trail we leave en route to Mong La, Myanmar (Burma) makes it virtually impossible to slip in or out of the region unnoticed. My colleague and I are likely the only westerners in the entire Northern Shan state (an area controlled by the WA army notorious for drug, teak, and wildlife trafficking) and the Burmese government is relentless in keeping tabs on our whereabouts.

Mong La is not the easiest place to get to for westerners. For us it begins just across the border from Mae Sai, Thailand in Tachilek where the bureaucracy becomes painful if not comical. Special permits are required to pass from city to city in eastern Burma and no less than four checkpoints and immigration stops lie between Tachilek and Mong La (just a five hour drive).Paperwork and tourist ID cards are to be presented at checkpoints and immigration offices, offices that hide well off the beaten path. Without a good guide we would be hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine back streets searching for signs that simply don't exist.
Burma is divided into fourteen states, most of which claim autonomy from the Burmese military junta that took power fifteen years ago. Each state is controlled by different army forces; while Burmese SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) soldiers monitor the major cities, villages between are beset by Shan, WA and other armed forces. Eastern Shan (where we are headed) is controlled by anti-Rangoon national WA army, the main remnant of the former Communist Party of Burma and notorious drug, teak, and wildlife traffickers.

If you can imagine a post apocalyptic Las Vegas in a stripped out jungle valley then you can envision Mong La. This city of sin turned dusty slum lies on the border of eastern Shan state and western China. It's a strange netherworld, neither here nor there, a proverbial purgatory -- technically in Burma but run by the Chinese. Burmese money is of no use in Mong La; only Chinese yuan exchanges hands in this city without ATMs. The people here (largely of Chinese decent) wait patiently for their formerly thriving city to be reborn. They may very well be waiting for Beckett's Godot who is not likely to show his face in this godforsaken town until the neon of the once bustling casinos reignites the sky.


My colleague and I arrive in Mong La to investigate what we are led to believe is one of the largest illegal wildlife markets in the world but venturing out of the three hundred room Grand Hotel (of which we are likely the only guests) I have trouble imagining a bustling market at all. The stores are shuttered, casinos abandoned, karaoke bars boarded up, and the streets are empty save for the occasional Chinese tour bus and shiny Mercedes Benz that slips across the border. The automotive workshops (I use the word loosely) just across from a boarded up vandalized nightclub are in full swing, however. New Toyotas and Hondas line the lot. Who they belong to is anybody's guess but they all boast the same tag decoration "Have a Nice Trip." Where are they going? Or, where have they gone, may be a better question. And why are their cars being worked on here in this waste of a city?

The sun dips behind distant mountains and just opposite the river the night market sparks with life. A market that up until a few years ago probably entertained thousands of hungry gamblers now peddles food, worthless plastic toys, and household products to the few locals and even fewer Chinese tourists who come here looking for what? Dried fish heads? Cheap plastic brooms? Plastic sex toys?

Flanking the market on two sides are at least a dozen dimly lit brothels, each with five or six teenage girls inside. They meticulously paint their faces and fix their hair for an anticipated night of decadence. I talk to a young Chinese prostitute who speaks minimal English.

"You take me tonight," she says.
"How much," I ask.
"One hundred yuan." A mere fifteen dollars.
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen," she says.

I ask her if I can give her 500 yuan to go home to her mother for Christmas (yes, many are Christian in this region which was under British rule until 1948).

"No mother. No family. Just here," she says with little emotion and explains that she was abandoned as a child and sold to this brothel where she hopes to earn enough money to go to America and study. But that dream was birthed before the casinos shut and her clients all but vanished. Now there are far more prostitutes than customers in Mong La.

Just beyond the market through a shadowed alley we get our first glimpse of the notorious wildlife trade. In the back of a shop a large black figure paces behind steel bars rattling the cage under his mass. My colleague and I walk to the storefront and enter quietly. There is no merchant to be found in the fancy shop. To my left are two fifty gallon glass tanks with PVC spigots on the front, each filled with a murky brown liquid like home aquariums gone incredibly rancid from neglect. On closer inspection, across the bottom of the tanks of dark tea like fluid are scattered bones, bear bones to be exact. I can only assume this solution is the savored bear bile, a concoction favored by Chinese for medicinal purposes.

The back shelves are lined with large glass jars, each containing a similar solution and what looks like pickled ginger root. The labels, however, depict Bengal tigers stalking in the jungle. Tiger penis, I think to myself. Many Chinese think tiger penis improves male sex drive and stamina like its distant synthetic cousin Viagra. On display in glass cases around the showroom are such objects as bear paws, tiger claws, ivory tusks, various predator teeth, shark fins, bear gall bladders, and carved teakwood; all for sale, all endangered, and all illegal. But with no law in this Wild West town (just mafia and a few corrupt officials) in a country on the brink of civil war for 50 years there is little hope for fair dealing with poachers and traffickers.
Unlike its eastern neighbor Thailand (a country stripped of its forests and habitats); Burma boasts one of the world's largest expanses of untouched jungle. This is likely due to harsh government suppression and anti-capitalist mentality imposed by the military junta. But in its relative autonomy Mong La (surrounding naked and exposed mountains included) exists outside the realm of law and governmental control and remains a dusty haven for illegal and corrupt activities.

I pull back the red curtain dividing the front showroom from the back and am immediately greeted by an enormous yak head mounted on the wall and two meter long decorated elephant tusks below it. To my right, a giant Bengal tiger skin; a black panther skin just below that and on the back shelves two more tiger and three leopard skins rolled up and ready for sale. Price tags (written in Chinese) are affixed to each. Atop the large glass display case (the centerpiece of the room containing more paws, claws, teeth and tusks) is a leopard head turned candle holder. My stomach churns as my partner snaps his shutter at the disturbing collection.

We've been discovered. A beautiful young Chinese woman enters and greets me politely. Another enters, delicate and well dressed, bearing an angular scar from forehead to chin. Noticing the camera she shouts angrily.

"I want to buy," I say and flash my wallet. She barks at me in Chinese pointing at the camera while the other woman grabs the phone and dials. This can't be good, I think. We slip through the back door quickly. I'm startled and jump aside just in time to avoid a huge black paw that swats at my leg. So this is how she got her scar. Three young Asian Black bears (Moon Bears) not more than four years old peer out from their rebar cage. My mate immediately snaps the shutter. These guys likely await the same fate as the poor souls in the front tanks. Or perhaps they will end up in a bear bile factory across the border. Or in the sleazy disease ridden zoo in Yangon. It's hard to say. Regardless, their destiny is not a pleasant one. The woman shuffles us towards the front of the store where her friend is still shouting into the phone. We politely thank them and exit the shop.

Walking towards our desolate hotel we meet the Mong La we expected. Shop after shop displays similar animal products, all dead endangered wildlife. The opposite sidewalk is lined with restaurants. Turtles, bullfrogs, and eel all await the soup bowls. A caged barn owl stares blankly at the cauldron that will likely be his undoing.

"How much for the owl," I ask a woman who promptly rips the shell from a live turtle.
"One hundred yuan," she says. I am overwhelmed with the urge to buy this animal and release him.
"He should be flying," I say as I flap my arms. She laughs and tosses the writhing turtle into the pot.
It is believed in China that eating owl or eagle eyes will strengthen eyesight. Turtles, I am told, just plain taste good. On the corner of this street of stripped dignities and boiling pots is a pharmacy peddling Viagra at a fraction of the cost of tiger penis. Ironically, it just may be that modern pharmaceuticals will secure a future for the nearly extinct Bengal tiger? Just what is in Viagra anyway, I wonder.

Back in the night market the young ladies are lined up; human wildlife is also on display and very much for sale in Mong La. They smile and wave at the middle aged sex predators (of which we are mistakenly identified and included). I get a glimpse of the fifteen year old I spoke with earlier climbing into the back of a shiny Honda Civic with three men. The car slips around the corner and into the darkness of the unlit street.
How does one expect her (or anyone else around here) to give a damn about the environment or wildlife when she has absolutely no future outside this seedy little town? A life of prostitution here can't end well. What happens when the men aren't interested in her aging body anymore? Opium sales? Wildlife sales? Return to the hill tribes and live in fear of her own government, one that commits random rapes and murders? A life on the run is likely what she has to look forward to; a life of displacement. In Burma they call them IDPs (Internally displaced persons) and there are thousands on the run and hiding in the jungles.

Sitting in my posh room in the eerily empty hotel I imagine the haunted souls that have employed this bed over the years, and so many more beds just like this one. I reflect on the caged bears. If lucky they will be executed quickly. Unlucky and they will end up spending their days with catheters inserted into their abdomens draining their valuable bile. Music penetrates the walls in my room. I step out onto the balcony. Below me Christmas carolers sing to an empty lobby. Dozens of children sing Jingle Bells. In English no less. This place just keeps getting weirder.

Sunrise finds us back at the scene of the night market. The brothels are shuttered and the market bustles with a very different crowd, peddling a very different merchandise. Dead wildlife and soon to be dead wildlife are the products of the Saturday morning market. Much smaller I am sure than the market of the past when casinos laundered millions in drug and teak money and gamblers and wildlife consumers poured in by the thousands but a market nonetheless. a market dealing in endangered species.

Isle number one: The isle of the dead. The products lining these blanket stalls were until recently not products at all but appendages and innards of living breathing jungle critters living out their innocent lives in the trees and rivers of eastern and northern Burma. In this isle you can buy a not so fresh leopard skin complete with three buckshot holes for a mere six hundred yuan. Hornbills recently plucked from their precarious perches and decapitated go for about one hundred yuan. Chunks of dried elephant skin (good for heeling cuts) sell for just sixty yuan. Carved tiger, jaguar, and leopard teeth make very popular key chains. Pangolin tails and porcupine quills as well as various bones and skulls can also be purchased at very low cost. And a dried bear gall bladder (great for stomach ailments) can be yours for the chewing for just 400 yuan. It's no wonder the Chinese have stomach ailments. That tiger penis and bear bile elixir gave me indigestion, let's try some gall bladder jerky to sooth that tummy ache.

Isle number two: the isle of the suffering, the doomed to tonight's dinner plate. A caged groundhog shivers and retreats in fear when I approach. Empty cages flank his either side; brothers and sisters slaughtered in isle three, no doubt. Turtles, bullfrogs, lizards, snakes, ducks, pangolins, and various birds of prey, caged, bagged, or tied bake in the hot sun awaiting similar fates.

I squat down to investigate a turtle in a fishnet bag desperately trying to claw his way out. I look into his eyes as he reaches for me, for freedom. Before I can ask, how much, a brown hawk is slammed down at my feet. Barely alive he opens his jaws to scream but nothing emits. A woman points,"two hundred yuan," she says. My colleague squats to take a picture and instantly the bird is snatched up, slammed into a concrete pillar twice and shoved into a cardboard box. A display of protest or common practice?

Behind me is isle number three: the isle of carnage. Blood spills across the floor under the feet of countless hammering butchers. The chopping, slicing, plucking, peeling, and grinding continues through the morning. A woman saws her way through a ribcage as another tosses live ducks into a crate. A butcher hacks his way through a never-ending pile of fish. They are at odds to see who can create the bigger blood pools. A young boy quickly ties the feet of six chickens together, throws them into the basket of his motorbike and shoots off. I look back at my mate. He is being hassled again, surrounded by peddlers shouting and pointing at the camera. They are visibly upset and rightfully so. They are breaking the law. But what do they fear? There is no such thing as wildlife enforcement in this seedy weigh station of a town.

Despite our pathetic efforts to appear as buyers (I keep flashing my wallet and bills) it's apparent we are not here to spend money. The chaos grows as more merchants close in. A transaction is completed to my left and a well dressed businessman stuffs a live ground hog head first into his pangolin skin bag. He slips away through the crowd. Another well dressed man yammers into his cell phone and glares at me from across the isle. We steal away into the streets.

The hot day meanders into the cool night and Christmas carolers once again grace the lobby of our grand hotel. So this is Christmas in Mong La, the former jungle Vegas; a setting, no doubt, for a future Stephen King novel. What hope do these young carolers have for a future here? What hope for the future of Burma's jungles? The old growth forests? The rivers? The wildlife? I have enough money in my pocket right now to buy all the animals on death row in that market and some leftover to help a few of the teenage girls get off the street. But would it help? Wouldn't it simply perpetuate the problem?

Are there alternatives to be found here? What can we offer people who exist solely through underground business, people without IDs or passports, people invisible to the outside world, ignored by their governments, people living in purgatory with little choice but to exploit themselves and the surrounding jungle? Mong La is not even on the Burmese Maps anymore. Is it really here? Am I really here or is this some crazy nightmare?

So while you are in the holiday spirit all curled up by the fire enjoying Christmas with friends and loved ones extend your thoughts to the distressed and agonizing inhabitants (human and nonhuman alike) of the inescapable inferno that is Mong La. Perhaps together we can find solutions to the endless suffering in a place that disgusts me so much I will find it hard to leave -- a place that will likely never leave me.