China’s Illegal Wildlife Trade in Tigers, Turtles, Timber

DOHA, Qatar, March 17, 2010 (ENS) – “Porous borders” are allowing vendors in Myanmar to offer a door-to-door delivery service for illegal wildlife products such as tiger bone wine to buyers in China, finds the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC’s latest look into China’s wildlife trade.

Rare and endangered wild animal and plant species are poached in Myanmar, or sourced from neighboring countries, and then smuggled into China through many small trails without checkpoints, TRAFFIC researchers report.

“China’s border areas have long been considered a hotbed for illegal trade, with remote locations often making surveillance a difficult problem in sparsely populated areas,” said Professor Xu Hongfa, director of TRAFFIC’s program in China.

The report, “State of Wildlife Trade in China 2008,” was released Tuesday at the ongoing triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, which continues through March 26.

Some 1,500 delegates representing 175 governments, indigenous peoples, nongovernmental organizations and businesses are in attendance.

Over-exploitation of wildlife for trade has affected many species and is stimulating illegal trade across China’s borders, concludes the TRAFFIC report, the third in an annual series on emerging trends in China’s wildlife trade.

A tiger skin for sale in a shop in Tachilek, Myanmar, 2004. (Photo by Chris Shepherd courtesy TRAFFIC)

The illegal trade in Asian big cat products is a key issue at the CITES meeting with tigers in the spotlight during this Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar. With only 3,200 tigers left in the wild, all international trade in tigers and their parts is banned. CITES delegates will vote on measures that, if properly enforced, could end the illegal tiger trade for good.

For the report, in December 2008 TRAFFIC investigators conducted market surveys of illegal trade in towns on the Myanmar side of the China-Myanmar border and in three cities on the Chinese side.

The surveys found no illegal trade in endangered wild species in the three Chinese cities of Yunnan Province, or in Muse market in Myanmar. However, many wildlife products were found for sale in Mongla, Myanmar, which is opposite Daluo port in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, China.

In the Mongla agricultural produce market, close to the China-Myanmar border checkpoint, outdoor stalls selling wildlife products were mostly ethnic Chinese. Products of endangered species identified in the survey included: a clouded leopard skin, pieces of elephant skin, bear bile, a bear paw, pangolin scales, a silver pheasant and a monitor lizard foot.

Tiger bone wine for sale in a shop near Mongla Stadium, Myanmar, 2008. (Photo by Xu Ling courtesy TRAFFIC)

“Near Mongla Stadium was a shop called Burma Yu’erma Tiger-bone Wine where tiger bone wine was openly displayed for sale,” the report states. A 335 gram bottle was priced at Chinese yuan 600 (US$88) and a 700 g bottle at CNY1200 (US$176).

To prove the wine was genuine, the shop owner showed the TRAFFIC investigators a whole animal skeleton, which was identified as being from a tiger. The shop owner and his wife were Myanmar nationals, speaking fluent Chinese. They claimed that buyers were mostly Chinese tourists and a telephone ordering service was available for the wine, which could be delivered to Daluo port in China.

Tiger and leopard parts were found openly for sale in western China, although market surveys in 18 cities found just two places where such items were encountered.

One of them, Bei Da Jie Market in Linxia city, has a history of trading in tiger products. There, a total of five surveys between late 2007 and 2008 found one tiger, 15 leopard and seven snow leopard skins for sale.

“There is clearly ongoing demand for leopard and tiger products, but the trade appears to be becoming less visible year-on-year,” said Professor Xu, possibly because there is less trade in big cat products or possibly because it has become more covert and organized.

On March 1, the Chinese newspaper “People’s Daily” reported, “Roaring demand for tiger bone tonic wine during the Year of the Tiger has delighted those taking part in the underground industry but sent chills through conservationists.”

Chinese animal rights groups have launched an online campaign for more protection of wild animals, but consumers still want the illegal tonic wine, a tincture made from steeping bones, either whole or crushed, in a vat of wine for at least a year. “Tiger bone tonic wine will surely be popular this year,” a seller from the Beijing Xinghuo Company, told the newspaper.

China joined the CITES treaty in 1981. It imposed a ban on the harvesting of tiger bones and outlawed all trade in tiger body parts in 1993. In China, only about 20 tigers are thought to be left in the wild.

In southern China, the human consumption of freshwater turtles threatens the survival of many wild populations.

Freshwater turtles at a farm in Guangdong (Photo by Xu Ling courtesy TRAFFIC)

TRAFFIC’s 2008 wild meat market surveys identified 26 species of turtles for sale and warns that the emergence of a greater variety of turtle species in farms is cause for concern.

The majority of turtles were claimed by vendors to be supplied from freshwater turtle farms, many of which do not practice closed-cycle captive breeding and therefore rely on wild-sourced breeding stock.

“If no action is taken, sourcing from the wild coupled with increased captive production to meet an expanding market demand will pose a serious threat to wild species through unsustainable harvesting from wild populations in China and beyond,” warned Professor Xu.

The report predicts that the scale of turtle farming in China is likely to grow as the supply of freshwater turtles and the value of the trade increase.

“Increased farming production could easily catalyse greater demand, and thereby increase the largely unsustainable demand from wild populations,” the report states.

The report also highlights research into the legality of timber imported into China from source countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. Researchers found up to 30 percent discrepancies between reported import and export timber volumes and they believe that “some of the timber imported to China was illegally felled in source countries.”

As a major timber processing country, China needs to import a large amount of timber to meet consumer demand in domestic markets, and processing for overseas markets, the TRAFFIC report notes.

“Among China’s major timber supplying countries, illegal timber felling and trade are rife in Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, according to WWF estimates and Greenpeace reports. Illegally felled timber in Indonesia accounts for 70–80% of gross output, while the proportion is 10–20% for Russia,” the report states.

Other topics covered include sustainable utilization of traditional medicinal plants, tackling cross-border illegal wildlife trade on the China-Nepal border, stopping illegal wildlife trade online, and the illegal coral trade in East Asia.

Coral jewelry for sale at a shop in Taipei, Taiwan (Photo by Joyce Wu courtesy TRAFFIC)

Red coral is a highly valuable lower marine invertebrate, distributed mainly in the East Sea, South Sea and Taiwan areas of China. In recent years, red coral resources have been seriously depleted due to over-harvesting and environmental pollution. Long-lived and slow-growing, corals are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

“Some illegal traders smuggle and trade red coral and its products for profit, resulting in market disorder and management difficulties,” the TRAFFIC report states.

China listed red coral as a Grade 1 protected species in 1988, and in 2008, China listed red coral in Appendix III of CITES in 2008 to warn fellow CITES Parties to be vigilant regarding any imports of corals from China.

Delegates at this CITES meeting will consider a proposal by the United States and Sweden, on behalf of the European Community, to list all 31 species of the coral family on CITES Appendix II.

This listing would allow international trade in pink coral, red coral, noble coral, angel skin coral, Sardinia coral, and Midway coral only under a strict permit system.

China has strengthened management of ivory processing and trade, the TRAFFIC report finds. As a result, China was approved by the CITES Standing Committee in July 2008 to bid in the legal one-time sale of 108 tonnes of ivory from registered government-owned ivory stockpiles from four southern African countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

China now has strict controls on new ivory processing enterprises and sales aimed at improving the labeling and information management of ivory products. The annual consumption of ivory is restricted and the use of raw ivory materials must be optimized. The new rules aim to strengthen the self-regulation of the industry, collaborative law-enforcement mechanisms, and publicity on elephant conservation issues.

“Both TRAFFIC and WWF will be encouraging CITES Parties to enforce the law effectively in their own countries in order to end all illegal trade,” said Colman O’Criodain, wildlife trade analyst with WWF International.

The report focuses on the impact of China’s trade on globally important biodiversity “hotspots.” TRAFFIC says these hotspots have a crucial influence on the survival of endangered species, and they are places where conservation action to reduce wildlife trade threats can bring about the greatest benefit.

Click here to view the report, “State of Wildlife Trade in China 2008,” in English and Chinese.

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