Mong La, Myanmar – In the middle of Zhangji Restaurant stood the venue‘s main attraction: a long glass aquarium filled with Chinese rice wine and ginseng root.
There, eerily submerged in the brown liquid, was the skeleton of a tiger, its skull and backbone visible above the alcohol.
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A small faucet was attached to the side of the tank, where waitresses poured out glasses for tables of Chinese tourists. The skin of another tiger was pinned to the wall above.
Tiger bone wine – or hugujiu, in Mandarin – has long been prized by wealthy Chinese, who believe it can stave off chills and improve circulation. Though the tonic has been banned for years in China, it is a common sight across the border in this small town in Myanmar.
Venues on the town’s main dining strip all have tanks of tiger spirit, available for the knock-down price of 60 Chinese yuan ($10) per glass.
Many restaurants here also specialise in endangered animals. On the pavement outside the Zhangji Restaurant were cages filled with owls, geckos, monkeys, and monitor lizards. Plastic tubs held soft-shell turtles. Another restaurant down the street boasted live pangolins, an endangered species of scaly anteater whose consumption is banned under international wildlife treaties.
“It’s delicious,” a waitress said, pointing her pen at the curled, scaly creatures.
A major wildlife market
Welcome to Mong La, the de facto capital of “Special Region No 4”, a sliver of territory along the Chinese border in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. In recent years, spurred by lax law enforcement and booming demand from China, this shabby border town has grown to become a key hub of the Asian trade in endangered animals and animal products.
The turnover of many products seems to be high ... Given the small size of the town, this is remarkable.
“In terms of number and volume of the variety of species on offer, Mong La is one of Southeast Asia’s largest open wildlife markets,” said Vincent Nijman, a zoologist and anthropologist from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.
For the past two decades, the armed militia that controls this tiny enclave, population 89,000, has survived by turning it into a haven of illicit pleasures for border-hopping Chinese tourists. Glitzy casinos draw hundreds of Chinese each week from nearby Yunnan province, where gambling is banned. The influx of gamblers has in turn triggered a boom in prostitution – much of the central town seems to function as a red-light district – and a surging demand for rare animals, many of which are protected by international treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Evidence of the wildlife trade can be seen everywhere around town. At Mong La’s open-air market, vendors openly sell bear bile powder, pangolin scales and the skulls of Tibetan antelopes. More upmarket wildlife stores do a brisk trade in ivory and tiger skins, which experts have traced back to poachers as far away as Africa and India.
During a trip to Mong La in January this year, Nijman and a colleague from the anti-wildlife trafficking organisation TRAFFIC counted 50 raw elephant tusks and 3,300 pieces of ivory for sale around town.
“The turnover of many products seems to be high and there is no other indication other than that business is thriving,” Nijman said. “Given the small size of the town, this is remarkable.”
At one wildlife boutique, a Chinese shop owner showed off a piece of polished ivory with a price tag of 5,000 yuan ($805). When asked where it came from, he chuckled nervously. “Where has it come from? I don’t know about that.”
A ‘James Bondian private police force’
Mong La has enjoyed autonomous status since 1989, when the Communist Party of Burma collapsed after decades of insurgency. The Mong La area subsequently fell under the control of the National Democratic Alliance Army, or NDAA, led by the former Maoist Red Guard Sai Leun. Like many armed rebel groups, Leun then cut a ceasefire deal with Myanmar’s military government, giving him autonomy in exchange for ending the insurgency. Since then, Leun has ruled Mong La and its gambling settlement by fiat, protected by an army of 4,500 men that US officials have likened to a “James Bondian private police force”.
There's an enormous demand in China for these products. There's not a lot being talked about and done about it, but it's serious money.
Tom Kramer, a Yangon-based researcher with the Transnational Institute, said the Myanmar government lets ceasefire groups like the NDAA do more or less whatever they want, “as long as they don’t go into opposition politics”.
Given the rising Chinese demand, the peculiar political arrangements in Mong La have created the perfect spot for wildlife traders.
“There’s an enormous demand in China for these products,” he said. “There’s not a lot being talked about and done about it, but it’s serious money.”
For its own part, the NDAA denies it has turned a blind eye to the illegal animal trade. One senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the police frequently raided wildlife shops and confiscated contraband. “We will crack down on it,” the official said, though he admitted it was challenging. “Most of the high-end restaurants have wild animals, because when the rich people come they say, ‘I want to eat this one, I want to eat that one’. They don’t want to eat livestock raised in the farm, because of antibiotics or something.”
But Nijman remained unconvinced that there has been any real attempt to stem the sale of products like ivory and tiger bones – trade that appeared to have official backing. Like prostitution, the availability of banned animal products seemed to be an integral part of Mong La’s casino-based economy.
“You go out gambling, in the evening you get yourself a prostitute, and then you eat the stuff you can’t eat at home,” he said. “It’s the whole package that makes it attractive.”
While China has made some recent moves to crack down on the wildlife trade, banning rare animals from official banquets and passing tough new laws against the consumption of tiger bone wine and endangered creatures like pangolins, it, too, turns a blind eye to the Chinese tourists who cross into Mong La – often illegally – to buy wild animal products.
“Right near the border there are small trails. People simply walk across the border, without any documents,” said Wang Bangyuan, a public health specialist who has worked extensively in the China-Myanmar border region.
‘It’s a battle that they cannot really win’
Wang said that despite occasional large busts, the forestry police who enforce China’s wildlife protection laws also remain under-funded and ill-equipped.
“It’s like drug trafficking,” he said. “It’s illegal, it’s being enforced, but the police are understaffed and they’re fighting against a business which is quite lucrative. So it’s a battle that they cannot really win.”
China has taken a harder line with the NDAA in the past. In 2003, after becoming angry that corrupt officials were losing billions of yuan in Mong La’s casinos, Chinese forces stormed across the border and shut the operations down. The NDAA responded by shifting the gambling operations 16km to the south, but the shells of derelict casinos still dot the hills around town – a reminder of the region’s heavy reliance on China. A similar crackdown took place in 2011 in Boten, a casino town on the Laotian-Chinese border, which became a ghost-town overnight after China shut off access to Chinese electricity and cellphone networks.
For now, however, local authorities in Yunnan seem happy to tolerate the economic free-for-all in Mong La. Nijman said that without action on their part, it would be hard to stem the flow of ivory and other endangered animal products.
But, “if the gambling were to stop there”, he said, “the whole thing would collapse”.
Follow Sebastian Strangio on Twitter: @sstrangio