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UNDERCOVER IN SOUTHEAST ASIA'S WILDLIFE SUPERMARKET


This is Mong La, an uncontrolled border town between Myanmar’s Shan State and China, where elephant skin is sold by the kilo.

It is the largest of several illegal wildlife trade markets in the Golden Triangle, a region spanning the lawless border areas of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China. It is one of the world’s most notorious hotbeds for illegal wildlife trade, human trafficking, drugs, and gambling.

Our illegal wildlife trade expert visits this region to carry out undercover surveys that establish the type and volume of animals and parts being sold.

These images captured on her iphone reveal traders openly displaying semi putrefied tiger paws, sacks of pangolin scales, bears’ gall bladders, muntjac antlers, and the skins and skulls of clouded leopards. Here, slow loris paws are turned into key rings, and wild kites are tethered to rusty cages. Most of these animals are poached from Myanmar and other border countries but some, like the African ivory, lion, and saiga antelope parts, have been transported across continents to end up here.

So what's it like going undercover in Mong La?

Q: Why did you go to Mong La?

Mong La is just one of the area’s illegal wildlife trade markets, but we think it’s the biggest. Since my last trip in 2015, the volume has increased, as has the awareness of the traders. Mong La has become famous via the internet and the traders are wary. You can’t get away with taking photos anymore.

Q: What was your cover?

Sometimes I play a ‘middle man’ seeking products for my boss, this allows me to take photos and ask for prices to ‘report back to him’. Other times I am the ‘boss’, looking to buy. Of course I never do.

Q: Is it dangerous?

Yes, there’s no law enforcement. One day a man came running after me, shouting. He’d seen me taking pictures of his shop. It took about ten minutes for the situation to calm down, but eventually he believed I was just a tourist and just asked me not to put the photo on Facebook, but for a minute we didn’t know what would happen.

Q: How do we stop this?

Most of the animals here are being poached in Myanmar, so we need to increase law enforcement to protect them. Then we need to close these markets, starting on the Myanmar side and then hopefully clearing the whole of the Golden Triangle region.

Q: What is the hardest part of your job?

Seeing the sheer variety and scale of the trade in the Golden Triangle. It’s staggering. I’ve been to markets in Myanmar that sell illegal wildlife trade products, but have never seen anything like this, and everyone is just walking around like it’s normal.