By Kyaw Ye Lynn
Mong La, MYANMAR
Locals say it's mostly Chinese that visit what at first appears to be a small zoo near their northern Myanmar town on the Chinese border.
While some come to Mong La in Shan State to indulge in gambling, drugs and prostitution, others travel to its outskirts to take in the array of caged animals -- many of which are endangered -- on display.
On the wall in a hut at the compound's center is a photo of a man holding an enormous snake, which a local motorbike taxi driver says used to be in a big cage.
"That python was taken away last year," he says, sitting aside a cheap 125cc motorcycle. "I've no idea where it went.”
The man does not wish to give his name. It's mid-afternoon and many of the cages are empty. The man says that in the morning the cages are full.
He points at a pond he says was earlier brimming with life.
“I think the Chinese visitors also like to eat crocodiles,” he says.
A recent report by UK-based wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC claimed that Mong La is the center of Myanmar's trade in illegally trafficked animals.
Among the alligators, pythons and bears on display, you can also find pangolins - a tiny creature that looks like a cross between an armadillo and an anteater and figures highly on the list of the world’s most endangered creatures.
Mong La used to be a remote and poor farming town, but after the former junta signed a ceasefire and autonomy agreement in 1989 with ethnic rebel group the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) it was transformed.
Where once there was a small dirt-poor trading center, there is now a garish town of concrete, neon-lit casinos and night-clubs, fuelled by Chinese visitors hungry for gambling, sex, drugs and exotic animals.
And in the town's central market are the fruits of this trade. There, vendors sell tiger skins and teeth, thick chunks of elephant hide and tusks, rhino horn, pangolin scales, clouded leopard pelts, flying squirrels, masked palmed civet cats, Asiatic moon bear skins and gall bladders, and Tibetan antelope skulls.
Chinese shoppers flock to the market to purchase the rich poachings -- many in the belief that they have special medicinal properties.
Tiger skin is believed to help with mental illness, teeth are used to cure rabies, asthma and sores on the penis, bears' gall bladders are used for a variety of ailments, including diabetes, while powered rhino horn is used as both medicine and aphrodisiac.
Even though the trade is banned in Myanmar, in Mong La -- built by NDAA leader Sai Leun with a mix of opium profits and technical aid from the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan -- it appears not to be enforced.
“Mong La is one of the largest gateways along Myanmar's border to wildlife trade in Asia,” Chris Shepherd, the regional director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, tells Anadolu Agency
For years, the non-governmental organization has been urging the government to liaise with regional authorities to tackle pangolin and other endangered animal trade in the area, and also resolve the illicit cross-border trade in wildlife.
“Myanmar must stop the wildlife trade in Mong La and other border towns,” he says in an email. “Otherwise, Myanmar will lose its precious species."
Myanmar -- a country of snow-capped mountains, rain forests and vast river and delta networks -- has one of the highest levels of wildlife diversity in Southeast Asia.
According to a 2014 survey by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF), it has 11,824 species of plants, 1,056 species of birds, 252 species of mammals, and 295 species of reptiles.
In 1997, the country approved the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which banned the trafficking of most forms of wildlife and applied the death penalty in some cases.
However, with China beginning to restrict the trade within its own borders, MOECAF says that more and more of those dealing in such wildlife are turning their attentions to areas of Myanmar under the control of ethnic rebels -- especially border areas in northern Kachin state and eastern Shan state.
“It is impossible to control wildlife trafficking in those areas,” MOECAF deputy minister Aye Myint Maung tells Anadolu Agency, adding that the ministry hasn't even been able to set up a Forestry Department office in rebel-controlled areas.
Without cooperation from the rebels, “how can we control [wildlife trafficking]?” he asks.
Even though Mong La sits among the sleepy hill-tribe villages and opium warlords of Myanmar's north, the dominant currency has become the Chinese yuan, and street signs, conversation, and most government employees are ethnic Chinese.
Asked why the town continues to contravene Myanmar laws on wildlife trading, a mid-level officer from NDAA -- who does not wish to be named -- tells Anadolu Agency that most townsfolk can’t understand why it has become the subject of "western criticism".
“All endangered animals are going to disappear sooner or later," he says. "So what wrong with eating them?”Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.