Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters
Christmas in Purgatory: Investigating the Illegal Wildlife Market in Mong La, Burma
Thursday, December 27, 2007
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.