Found in a fridge: One of the world's most endangered species

TWO of the world's most beautiful creatures are found stuffed into a fridge in Hanoi - a rare insight into the lucrative trade in endangered animals across South-east Asia that makes a mockery of international conservation treaties.

Vietnamese police this week found the two frozen tigers in an apartment, along with two soup kettles filled with animal bones in an outdoor kitchen.

A 40-year-old woman confessed to police that she had hired three experts to cook tiger bones to make traditional medicines that she sold for about 400 per 100g.

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"The tigers could have been bought in Myanmar [Burma] or Laos and transported back to Vietnam by ambulances or hidden in coffins," said Vuong Tri Hoa, a forest ranger.

And there is the problem: while more developed countries in South-east Asia, such as China and Vietnam, have taken strong steps to stamp out the illegal hunting of endangered animals, impoverished states such as Laos and Burma either will not or cannot.

Demand for exotic animals across South-east Asia remains high - newly affluent Chinese prove excellent customers.

Three of the world's nine tiger sub-species fell extinct last century, and many scientists believe a fourth, the South China tiger is already "functionally extinct".

Poached from forests and sold to traders for as little as 5, almost every part of Asia's biggest big cat has commercial value.

Skins are sold as rugs and cloaks on the black market, where a single skin can fetch as much as 10,000.

Tiger meat is marketed as giving "strength", and bones are ground into powders or immersed in vats of wine to make curative "tiger-bone wine" tonics for the traditional Chinese medicine market.

If the market of Mong La is anything to go by, the remaining wild elephants, tigers and bears in Burma's forests are being hunted down slowly and sold to China.

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Nestled in hills in a rebel-controlled enclave on the Chinese border, Mong La, the "Las Vegas in the jungle" casino town, is clearly branching out from narcotics and prostitution into the illegal wildlife business.

Besides row on 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 porous 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, also known as scaly anteaters.

The live creatures, some of them on the IUCN World Conservation Union's "Red List" of critically endangered species, are destined for the cooking pots of exotic animal restaurants in China's neighbouring 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's 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.

"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," said Steven Galster, the Bangkok-based director of the Wildlife Alliance.

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Burma signed up in 1997 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, 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 past 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.

In 2004, the junta set aside a huge stretch of jungle in the isolated Hukawng valley to become the world's largest tiger reserve.

But in the Golden Triangle hinterlands of eastern Shan state, the junta exercises little authority - nowhere 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 pounds 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 (6,500) price tag on a tiger skin stretched across the wall of one shop in Mong La shows what cross-border police efforts such as South-east 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."

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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," Mr Galster said.

"The problem is you've got 1.3 billion people and so it only takes a tiny percentage of that population to be eating an endangered species to have a major impact."


THE tiger population in South-east Asia has declined from an estimated 100,000 in the early part of the 20th century to less than 4,000 in the wild today. Some estimates put the figure as low as 3,000.

They are considered to be critically endangered, with populations surviving in only 2-3 per cent of the area they ranged across 100 years ago.

The tiger population is declining at a rate of about 400 per year through a combination of poaching and habitat conflict.

At this rate it is estimated tigers will be extinct in the region sometime between 2012 and 2015.

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The populations are scattered in pockets across Myanmar, southern China, Thailand and Siberia, where their habitat has been eroded by illegal logging, which also forces local farmers on to their roaming grounds.

Grazing land for the tiger - and also crucially, its prey - has become scarce, driving the predators into contact with humans. They will often kill farm animals - usually the only source of income for farmers - for food, and are frequently poisoned by farmers as pests. The WWF says it is greatly concerned at the plight of the tiger, and two areas of Myanmar are considered to be global priority landscapes, where the animal is in need of greatest protection.

Tigers are classified as a conservation dependent species, in need of constant assistance to ensure their survival. They require space to roam, and buffer zones to separate them from human populations.

They are also poached heavily for their coats, which trade at high value on the black market to local people as well as western visitors.

The Environmental Investigation Agency says the trade in tiger skins in South- east Asia has increased greatly in recent years.

It is believed that if poaching cannot be curtailed, the tiger population would be wiped out very quickly.

In India and Bangladesh the trade in tiger skin has reduced the population to an estimated 1,500. There are believed to be fewer than 500 in Siberia, and below 400 in Thailand where the species formerly flourished.

The Balian tiger, the Javan tiger and the Caspian tiger have all become extinct in the last 25 years. In Sumatra there are believed to be fewer than 500 left alive, and less than 25 tigers survive in southern China.

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The WWF says there is hope for the tiger population if they can be left alone to breed.

If conservation action is sustained, it is hoped viable populations can be maintained, but it is not thought that tiger populations can exist in the future without permanent conservation assistance.


Donate to the Tiger Awareness Charity, run a race or trek 80km through the Shamwari Wildlife Reserve for the Born Free Foundation, or volunteer via their websites.