MONG LA, Myanmar (Reuters) - If the market of Mong La is anything to go by, the remaining wild elephants, tigers and bears in Myanmar's forests are being hunted down slowly and sold to China. Nestled in hills in a rebel-controlled enclave on the Chinese border, the "Las Vegas in the jungle" casino town is clearly branching out from narcotics and prostitution into the illegal wildlife business.
MONG LA, Myanmar (Reuters) - If the market of Mong La is anything to go by, the remaining wild elephants, tigers and bears in Myanmar's forests are being hunted down slowly and sold to China.
Nestled in hills in a rebel-controlled enclave on the Chinese border, the "Las Vegas in the jungle" casino town is clearly branching out from narcotics and prostitution into the illegal wildlife business.
Besides row upon row of fruit, vegetables and cheap plastic sandals, the market offers a grisly array of animal parts, as well as many live specimens, to the hundreds of Chinese tourists who flock across the border each day.
Bear paws and gall bladders, elephant tusks and chunks of hide, tiger and leopard skins, as well as big cat teeth and deer horn are all openly on display next to crudely welded cages of live macaques, cobras, Burmese star tortoises and pangolins.
The live creatures, some of them on the IUCN Conservation Union's "Red List" of critically endangered species, are destined for the cooking pots of exotic animal restaurants in China's neighboring Yunnan province, or further afield.
Food stalls in the market openly advertise dishes of pangolin or black bear.
The body parts -- some of which will not be real, given the ease with which a pig bladder can be passed off as that of a bear -- will either be ground up for traditional medicine, worn as amulets or simply hung on the wall as trophies.
Most of the specimens come from the former Burma's still vast tracts of virgin forest, wildlife experts believe, although some will have come from as far away as India to be trafficked into China by well-organized criminal gangs.
"Burma is being raped in terms of its natural resources -- trees, plants and animals. They've got to get a hold of the situation quickly before it becomes a barren ground," said Steven Galster, Bangkok-based director of the Wildlife Alliance.
"There's a huge flow of illegal wildlife going into China, through whatever porous border points there are. This is definitely one of them, mainly because the Burmese government just doesn't have a handle on the situation."
MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR TRADE
Myanmar signed up in 1997 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which places partial or total bans on sales of the most threatened species, including bears and big cats.
Experts also say the junta that has run the country for the last 45 years may not be as oblivious to wildlife protection as might be expected from its reputation as an international pariah and ruthless crusher of political dissent.
Illegal logging of Myanmar's famed teak forests is a major problem -- London-based environmental group Global Witness estimates that 1.5 million tonnes of timber worth $350 million was shipped illegally into China in 2005.
But in 2004, the junta did set aside a stretch of jungle the size of Vermont in the isolated Hukawng Valley to become the world's largest tiger reserve.
However, in the Golden Triangle hinterlands of eastern Shan State, the junta exercises little authority -- no more so than in Mong La, an autonomous fiefdom run by an ethnic Wa-Chinese warlord and drug baron called Sai Lin.
With the exotic animal black market worth billions of dollars a year -- exceeded in value only by the illegal trade in arms and drugs, experts believe -- it is little wonder the likes of Sai Lin are getting involved.
The 100,000 yuan ($13,250) price tag on a tiger skin stretched across the wall of one Mong La shop shows what cross-border police efforts such as Southeast Asia's Wildlife Enforcement Network, launched in 2005, are up against.
"These gangs are very big and have members stretching from Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand and right up into China," said Aroon Promphan, a captain in the special wildlife crime division of the Thai police.
"They tend to be armed and there's still political influence in countries like China and Myanmar."
The Chinese government has stepped up efforts in recent years to stamp out the domestic wildlife trade and educate people about the environmental perils of stripping forests of their native flora and fauna.
However, the appetite for exotica remains and, partly as a result of the crackdown, the trade has intensified beyond China's borders.
"The situation in China is still bad, although the awareness among Chinese citizens and the government is much higher than it was before," Galster said.
"The problem is you've got 1.3 billion people and so it only takes a tiny percent of that population to be eating an endangered species to have a major impact."