New Publication: Illegal Wildlife Trade in Myanmar
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
Over the past year we have been working on a project to understand and map illegal hunting and trade of wildlife in Myanmar. We have just published the first paper from this project and you can read the full article here. Myanmar sits at a key juncture between SE Asian countries and bioregions, and is an important piece of the puzzle in the international wildlife trade. While Myanmar often appears in maps of wildlife trade as a source and a conduit for illegal goods, so far our information about what is happening in Myanmar has been largely limited to a few well-known markets at border crossings.These markets are in regions of the country that are controlled by separatist groups where enforcement is absent and primarily serve international tourists from China and Thailand, buying everything from ivory and elephant skin to tiger bones and pangolin scales. While these markets are major hubs for cross border trade, there has been little work done on where animals are being hunted or on internal domestic markets.
Working with local partners, Friends of Wildlife, we carried out the first nationwide survey of hunters and wildlife markets in Myanmar, talking directly to hundreds of hunters about what species they see, what and how they hunt and where they sell goods. We built our survey using Open Data Kit, allowing for multimedia questionnaires to be delivered on mobile devices in multiple languages and data automatically updated to our servers. We were able to dynamically manage the survey and push updates to the survey team's phones if issues arose along the way. With data gathering and data entry happening in real time we didn't have to wait for months to get our hands on paper surveys and were able to analyse the data far more rapidly than if we had to wait for paper surveys to find their way back to us. Our teams also surveyed 19 wildlife markets and through interviews, identified 198 wildlife markets and vendors spread all around the country.
Our results paint a stark picture of wildlife harvesting and trade in Myanmar. Critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and near threatened species are widely hunted, consumed, and sold around the country. Urgent intervention is needed to save many of these species from extirpation and to forestall declines in more common species that are heavily hunted. Species that were hunted and/or found in markets included pangolin, gibbon, clouded leopard, Asian elephant, Asiatic black bear, sun bear, Burmese roofed turtle, great hornbill and gaur to name only a few. The majority of hunters we spoke to were subsistence harvesters, taking what they could get in order to supplement their low income as farmers. People who hunted specifically for trade or sport were more likely to travel further and encounter more species. Most species were sold at local markets no more than one or two villages away, rarely moving across township boundaries.
Our survey captured the harvesting and point of entry into the market for hunted animals, they may have travelled further through a network of buyers and middlemen after that initial sale.
All hunting is effectively illegal in Myanmar and wildlife laws around protected species have changed recently introducing harsher penalties and prison sentences. Judging by the openness with which people spoke to our teams about hunting activities there appeared to be either a lack of knowledge or a tacit understanding that the laws would not be enforced. Hunters reported declines in populations across our entire list of key species of conservation concern.
Our data suggest that shifting focus from high profile market locations that are essentially out of government control, in favour of enhanced policing of markets and trade routes with road checks along key internal routes could have significant impact on the flow of wildlife products within and through Myanmar. Domestic consumption and trade of wildlife species is a major factor in the declines of threatened species across the tropics and needs to be addressed in tandem with a focus on demand reduction in the international market. The complex interplay between domestic consumption of wildmeat and the illegal wildlife trade requires a multi-level approach that focuses not just on criminality and law enforcement, but also on the social and economic context within which harvesters are living. A combination of improved enforcement of newly strengthened laws, community outreach, and providing alternative sources of protein will be required if the forests of this keystone country for Asian biodiversity are to be saved from falling silent forever.