Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar – Than Lwin has been hunting wild animals for 22 years, yet stealth is not one of his attributes. Dry leaves crack beneath his feet as he weaves through the jungle and thick smoke drifts from his cigar into the canopy above.
He is not dressed for the occasion. He negotiates the rugged terrain in a cheap pair of flip-flops and stops every few minutes to readjust his longyi, a traditional Myanmar dress that is worn like a sarong and frequently catches on trees.
He has one advantage though: the M16 rifle hanging from his shoulder.
Thanks to this gun, Than Lwin is the most successful hunter in his village with five leopard kills to his name. As temperatures soar through the months of April and May, he hopes to score another of Myanmar’s largest prizes.
“It’s quite rare to see the moon bear but they usually come out looking for fruit at this time of year,” he says, searching the jungle canopy. “I know they’re living around here. If I see one I will kill it.”
The Asiatic black bear, characterised by the white crescent that adorns its chest, is a globally threatened species that roams a vast territory stretching from Iran to Taiwan.
Their population is in rapid decline. Over the past 30 years the number of Asiatic black bears has fallen by nearly 50 percent. They are particularly vulnerable in South East Asia and China, where it is believed their stomach bile can cure diabetes.
Professional poachers are known to operate in Myanmar, particularly along its northern borders. With 103 endangered species, it is a rich hunting ground for those feeding China’s relentless demand for exotic animals.
But Than Lwin lives beside the Golden Rock Pagoda on Mount Kyaiktiyo, a sacred Buddhist site in the south of Myanmar – a long way from the Chinese markets.
Hugging the cliff face below the pagoda is an open market where medical practitioners sell a colourful array of remedies to Myanmar pilgrims.
Kyaiktiyo is not unique. There are an estimated 10,000 traditional medical practitioners in Myanmar and anecdotal evidence suggests that their demand for specialised wildlife product is sustaining a vast network of poachers.
“Local consumption is a huge threat to wildlife in Myanmar,” says Chris Shepherd, regional director of TRAFFIC, which monitors the wildlife trade in South East Asia. “We have managed to get a lot of attention on Myanmar’s border markets but local consumption poses an even greater threat to certain species and it is going completely unnoticed.”
The threat to Myanmar’s wildlife populations is particularly acute in the country’s ethnic regions, which are hot spots for both biodiversity and conflict.
Myanmar has been plagued by a series of armed conflicts since it gained independence from the British in 1948. Warfare continues to ravage parts of the country and weapons are widely available.
One of the largest armed conflicts took place in Karen State, the region bordering Kyaiktiyo. Whenever fighting broke out with Karen separatists, fighters like Than Lwin led government forces through the forest towards their enemy.
“I was called up so frequently and spent so many nights with the army that my wife told me not to bother coming home,” recalls Than Lwin.
Last year, the Karen National Union signed a National Ceasefire Agreement with the Myanmar government, ending a conflict that had lasted more than 60 years. Than Lwin is now held on a retainer with the Myanmar army, earning just K140,000 ($120) a month.
“We have to hunt more because we have less work with the government,” he says. “But there are only a couple of us who can hunt in our village because we are the ones with the guns. There are a lot more hunters over in Karen State.”
Employment opportunities are scarce in Kyaiktiyo. Both of Than Lwin’s sons work as carpenters in Thailand. Other men from his village make a small living carrying luggage, goods and elderly people around the Golden Rock Pagoda, a Buddhist pilgrimage site featuring a golden boulder balancing over a cliff.
Hunting can be financially unstable too. During the cold season Than Lwin goes months without catching anything. But high demand yields high rewards.
He can make K50,000 ($42) for every Burmese python or marbled cat he delivers to Kyaiktiyo market. A leopard could earn him as much as K700,000 ($600). This makes hunting a lucrative career choice in a country where the minimum wage is set at around $3 a day.
But while the traditional medicine market might be worth big money in Myanmar, no research has been conducted to find out what effect the industry is having on wildlife populations.
“This is probably one of the biggest threats to wildlife [in Myanmar] yet nothing is known about it because conservation priorities are skewed,” says Chris Shepherd at TRAFFIC, the last group to survey Kyaiktiyo market back in 2001.
“Priorities are rarely based on actual science. There are hundreds of birds under threat but few organisations will look into them because they are not as sexy as the tiger or the elephant. The same is true for the reptiles and small cats that you see in Kyaiktiyo.”
One hundred and seventy-four species of mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian are protected under Myanmar law. The Forestry Department tries to educate people in rural areas about the law but the impact is limited.
“We try to raise awareness through seminars and posters but I don’t think this is very effective as the public rarely follow the rules,” U Nay Myo Tun, a forest officer from Kyaito, told Al Jazeera.
The maximum penalty under the 1994 Protection of Wildlife and Protected Areas Law for “killing, hunting, possessing, selling, transporting, wounding or exporting” protected wildlife is seven years in jail or a fine of just K50,000 ($42). But, the law is rarely applied. Only 33 cases of wildlife crime were detected by the Forestry Department in 2015.
This comes as no surprise to U Nay Myo Tun.
“We make round checks in the forest two or three times a month, but we do not see any hunters because they hunt at night and we dare not stay in the jungle over night,” he says.
Than Lwin claims to be unaware of any laws that protect wildlife in Myanmar and has had little contact with the forest authorities – except that time he says they helped him to carry a mountain goat up to the market in return for some wild pig meat.
Conservation, however, is not a foreign concept to him.
“If we shoot animals with a gun then we can make sure we only catch the adults. A snare or trap can cause extinction because its indiscriminate and could catch a young animal before it has the chance to reproduce,” he says. “I also avoid killing mothers if I see one with her young.”
But much like the law, Than Lwin’s rules are liberally applied. As he returns from an unsuccessful day in the forest he stops by a market stall and inquires about the Burmese python he caught last week.
Proudly displayed at the front of the shop is a box full of bear paws. Than Lwin closely examines one of the stumps, wafting the congealed blood beneath his nose.
“Two days old,” he guesses. “I haven’t shot a bear since last summer, it was a mother that had two young cubs.”
A black cauldron containing the severed heads of deer, pigs, monkeys and rodents sits at the centre of the shop. The skulls are in various states of decay and sprawled on a bed of white fat. Oil is rendered from the remains and mixed with herbs to create a popular medicinal ointment.
Elephant tails decorate the front shelf, a dried tiger penis hangs from the ceiling and 10 python skins are rolled up beside a jar of syrupy, brown sacks. According the dealer May Khin*, these gall bladders are an effective cure for seizures and strokes.
Some of her most expensive wares are sold as trophies rather than remedies. The preserved head of a clouded leopard assumes the highest shelf, presiding over the stall with the same pained expression it had the moment it was shot. Hanging on the back wall of the shop are three leopard hides.
May Khin has run the stall for 20 years and has a close relationship with hunters across the region. As she discusses rates with Than Lwin her phone starts to ring: a hunter from the Bago hills has caught some small cats and wants her to collect them.
She smiles and rushes to the door. It’s getting harder and harder to source wild animals but demand from her customers remains the same.
“Of course there are the restrictions, but we continue to sell our medicine with an understanding from the government,” she says.
There are 33 shops openly selling protected species at the Kyaiktiyo market, but according to U Htay Win, chairman of the pagoda authority, no laws are being broken.
“The herbal and tradition medicines that you see for sale have been used since our ancestors’ time and we allow that,” he says, referring to the massage oil.
“They do not sell the other animal parts that you see, they are just to show that their products are real. We do not allow them to sell [those]. If they did then we would fine them.”
Only one trader was issued with a fine last year, and hunters such as Than Lwin continue to empty the country’s eco-systems of wildlife.
“I know what I do is illegal,” Than Lwin admits, “but who is going to do anything about it?”
* Not her real name.