Friday, February 16, 2007

Clouded leopard parts used in Chinese medicine as tigers disappear

Asian wildlife threatened by China’s appetite

Source ::: AFP
Web posted at: 2/15/2007 1:57:4

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian forestry officials making a routine stop of vehicles last year were happily surprised when the Mercedes Benz they pulled over in the southwestern town of Pursat revealed a haul of clouded leopard pelts and bones.

With tigers hunted to near extinction, poachers have turned to this highly endangered big cat – there have been only three confirmed sightings in Cambodia since 2001 — for its parts, which are used to make traditional Chinese medicine.

The discovery was unexpected in this dusty town on the plains stretching from Cambodia’s Cardamom mountains, a region of lush forest where wildlife officials have, at best, a very long slim chance against poachers and animal traffickers.

But even this minor victory in the war against wildlife traders quickly turned sour when a court ordered the release of the three men detained over the leopard parts amid threats “by alleged bodyguards and associates of powerful figures in Phnom Penh,” said the group Conservation International.

The case against a fourth man, whom conservationists say is a key figure in the illegal animal trade, collapsed in October because officials didn’t know what charges to bring against him.

The intimidation and legal blunders that doomed these cases highlight some of the difficulties in stemming a massive wildlife trade “that is often underestimated and largely overlooked as a ‘soft’ issue,” says James Compton, regional director for the monitoring network TRAFFIC.

The trafficking of animals and animal parts, for food, medicines or pets, is a multi-billion-dollar global business eclipsed for profitability only by narcotics smuggling and arms dealing.

Fueled largely by China’s inexhaustible appetite for exotic animalsm – and exacerbated by growing affluence in neighbouring countries – the trade has inflicted untold devastation, with some species like the tiger and the Javan rhino threatened with extinction in many Southeast Asian nations.

This has forced poachers and traffickers to turn to neighbouring countries and the result is an ecological disaster resembling a domino effect of plunging wildlife populations.

“Vietnam’s wildlife is becoming so scarce and there’s such a huge demand in Vietnam that they’re having to get it from outside the country,” says Tim Knight, communications director for Wildlife at Risk (WAR), a non-profit group based in Ho Chi Minh City.

“A lot is smuggled in from places like Laos and Cambodia for consumption in Vietnam,” he adds.

Vietnam and Thailand, where poachers have cleared the forests of the most profitable species, have emerged as the key transit points for wildlife smugglers who are often better equipped than those trying to stop them.

“The battle against animal trafficking is very tough. The people who run the illegal wildlife trade are very sophisticated and have more money,” says Tassanee Vejpongsa, spokeswoman for WildAid in Bangkok.

“They just have far more resources and perhaps better international networks.”

Other less obvious countries also play a key role in the trade, says TRAFFIC’s Compton.

“Singapore is one of the world’s top re-export hubs, and while it has legislation prohibiting export of its native species, it acts as warehouse and freight-forwarder for wild animals and plants from this region and around the globe,” he says.

“Dealers are getting more and more organised. There are now reported to be packaging operations in Malaysia to save on the trouble of live transport,” he adds.

Some animals like pangolins, whose meat is eaten and its scales used in Chinese medicines, are butchered and vacuum sealed for shipment to China, he says.

Freshwater turtles are simply ground up in Indonesia and the resulting “mulch” exported for consumption as protein and medicine.

Economic development over the past three decades has brought unprecedented access to exotic wildlife for the newly rich who indulge in high-status endangered animals both for food and as pets, animal advocates say.

“The biggest problem is that there is more money being spent on medicine and on wildlife in restaurants,” says WAR’s Knight. “The situation is deteriorating week by week because rich people want to spend their money on something to show off their status.” High-profile animals remain big ticket items for traffickers.

“Tigers are a huge concern because their numbers are now so low that every wild tiger that is killed and sold into the trade is just a conservation disaster,” Knight says.

But the emerging taste for “imperial” foods formerly found on the tables of only the very wealthy have perhaps hit lesser known species the hardest.

“Turtles and tortoises are being smuggled for consumption in restaurants, in Vietnam and China and Hong Kong, for example,” Knight says.

“These species are not as charismatic as tigers or bears or monkeys, so there isn’t the same amount of concern about them. But they are being hoovered up at a frightening rate.”

As incomes rise, the exotic pet trade has also become an increasingly dangerous drain on wildlife populations, conservationists warn.

“There is a rise in the demand for exotic pets, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, Singapore,” says TRAFFIC’s Compton, adding that Indonesia also has a huge domestic pet market, particularly for birds and reptiles.

“This involves not only species from within the Asian region, but also from Africa, particularly Madagascar, South America and Australia,” he says.

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