The growing wealth among the urban middle class across the Greater Mekong and in neighboring China means demand for iconic wildlife species is accelerating. Three decades of unprecedented social, political, and economic transformation have generated important opportunities for improvements in quality of life and increased purchasing power across the majority of Asian economies. This has also given rise to trends such as the ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘individual ownership’ of unique, precious, and rare wildlife products, creating a highly profitable and less risky black market than other issue such as drug and human trafficking.
This trade occurs across the region – from remote corners of Myanmar and Laos, to markets in Bangkok and Hanoi. Its center of gravity though is the Golden Triangle – where Thailand, Myanmar, Lao PDR, and China meet. Here, casino-resorts, hotels, restaurants and markets openly sell illegal wildlife products with relative impunity. While it is understood that the majority of consumers in these markets are Mainland Chinese, they are also from across the Greater Mekong and further afield in Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
WWF Greater Mekong is implementing an ambitious regional approach for securing effective intergovernmental action against wildlife trade in the Golden Triangle. This includes promoting species protection legislation, supporting effective transboundary cooperation, and improving law enforcement effectiveness at key border crossings. The initial two-year objective of the WWF’s campaign is that by March 2018 trade in threatened species in Golden Triangle markets declines by 33% following government commitments to crack down. The ultimate goal is that priority target markets are shut down by 2020.
The Golden Triangle markets we target have been identified as some of the worst offenders in the global illegal wildlife trade. The poster child is Mong La, a notorious Golden Triangle wildlife market on the Myanmar-China border, where surveys detected at least 39 tigers in trade in February 2009 and December 2013. It is estimated that about one-third of poached wild tigers globally pass through Myanmar. Other wild cat species detected at Mong La include leopard, golden cat, and clouded leopard, with 49 whole elephant tusks, plus more than 3,000 items of carved ivory, detected in December 2013. The estimated retail value of ivory and pangolin products observed in December 2013 at Mong La exceeded four million USD.
Recent surveys have also demonstrated the availability of African species, including rhino horn. Surveys in 2015 demonstrated wide availability of rhino horn, as both jewelry and consumable chunks, with openly displayed stocks in just three shops valued at more than 250,000 USD. It is therefore clear that the wildlife markets of the Golden Triangle have direct links with the current rhino and elephant poaching crisis in Southern and Eastern Africa. Other hotspots include the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Lao PDR, where dining on endangered species such as tiger, bear or pangolin is common among Chinese gamblers who are drawn to the region by a massive casino complex and Chinatown shopping district. Even closer to the Chinese border, shops and restaurants across Boten, Laos sell ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales and tiger parts. Besides being status symbols, rhino horn, tiger bone and pangolin scales are mistakenly believed to have health and wellness benefits, something that no scientific study has ever confirmed.
Key government institutions and ministries in China, Lao PDR, and Myanmar should take collaborative action, considering the extent of illegal wildlife trade within their borders and the degree to which this negatively impacts their global reputation and their international commitments, especially to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We need more opportunities to leverage inter-governmental commitments for closing these markets whilst simultaneously providing the information, capacities, and tools for effective action.
To achieve success, the Wildlife Trade Big Win needs support and buy in from other critical NGOs and intergovernmental organisations working on wildlife trafficking. WWF will partner with a wide range of organisations to share data, coordinate action and push for government actions. WWF will also look to support local organisations and build their capacity to tackle this issue within their communities.
Without drastic action, the Greater Mekong Region, and indeed the rest of the world, will continue to see an escalating decline in flagship species such as tigers, elephants, leopards and rhinos. Pangolin will remain the most widely traded animal on the planet and marine turtle populations will crash. The most visible symbols of this decline – the wide open markets of the Golden Triangle -- must be closed as soon as possible. A combined effort between WWF, regional Governments and NGOs, and international partners can make this happen with an ambitious, coordinated strategy that will finally close this deadly gateway and give hope for the Greater Mekong’s world renowned wildlife species.