GENEVA, VIENTIENE–– The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty organization formed by the United Nations, on March 19, 2015 issued a rare recommendation that all 170 CITES member nations should “suspend commercial trade in specimens of CITES-listed species with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic until further notice.”
The recommendation came nine months after the CITES Standing Committee in July 2014 directed Laos and ten other nations to “develop a national ivory action plan and submit it to the Secretariat by October 31, 2014.”
Laos did not comply. The CITES Standing Committee on January 13, 2015 and February 12, 2015 sent reminder letters to the Laotian government, requesting that a national ivory action plan be submitted within 30 days.
The suspension of trade was recommended when Laos continued to balk at compliance.
The CITES recommendation came just days after publication of Sin City, an Environmental Investigation Agency report calling the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos alongside the Chinese border a “lawless playground” with “not even a pretense of enforcement.”
Summarized Sharon Gunyup, a New Jersey-based freelance journalist whose specialty is coverage pertaining to tigers, on TakePart.com, “The team confirmed rampant wildlife trade in this duty-free vacation spot that includes a casino, hotel, shops, massage parlors, a temple, restaurants, and more, opened in 2009, built by the Chinese Kings Romans Group for a Chinese clientele and run by mostly Chinese workers. The Laotian government is a 20% stakeholder in the multibillion-dollar complex.
“One store owner told investigators that the seven tiger skins in his shop had come from Mong La, a Myanmar border town known to funnel wildlife products to China,” Gunyup continued. “Another revealed that his store’s two meticulously stuffed tigers had come from China—to be sold in Laos and, presumably, be taken back home to China. His stock of Indonesian hornbills had also come via China, while his African ivory had come from Thailand.”
The Environmental Investigation Agency report was researched during a nine-month time frame mostly overlapping the period of time between the first CITES request for Laos to develop a national ivory action plan and the recommended suspension of trade.
Commented Guardian.com, “Even in a region of the world where wildlife trafficking is rampant and consumption of endangered species common, the report’s findings are shocking. At the God of Fortune restaurant, for example, undercover investigators viewed a live caged bear cub and python, both ‘available to eat on request,’ according to the report. The menu also openly included such fare as bear paw, monitor lizards, pangolins, geckos, and a variety of snakes and turtles. And one could wash all that down with a jar of purported tiger bone wine. At another restaurant, Fantasy Garrett, one can order something dubbed ‘sauté tiger meat.’”
Undercover operatives for the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Education for Nature Vietnam reported visiting a facility inside the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone that housed 38 Asiatic bears and 35 tigers.”
The whole of Laos is believed to have not more than 20 wild tigers of breeding age.
Breeding 1,000 tigers for slaughter
Recounted Sin City, “The keeper told investigators the plan is to acquire a total of 50 female tigers for breeding, with the aim of producing 500 tigers within three years and up to 1,000 tigers in the long term.”
Summarized Guardian.com, “Across the zone’s shops, investigators found stuffed tigers and tiger skins, rhino horn shavings, beads and carvings from the helmeted hornbill, and a single leopard skin. Even the casino brandishes wildlife products, namely ivory. Investigators found ‘carved whole tusks, bangles, beaded bracelets, pendants and other trinkets’ openly-displayed where gamblers hoped for luck.”
Explained Guardian.com, “Laos’ 2007 Wildlife & Aquatic Law prohibits the use of some animals, such as tigers, elephants, rhinos, and bears. However, there is a loophole: one can use these animals with government permission. Further, captive bred animals can be traded so long as they are at least second generation. But this requires registration with Laos’ government, something that the undercover investigators found was lacking in some of the zone.”
Both CITES and the Environmental Investigation Agency have taken notice of the Chinese role in stoking the illegal commerce in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone––which, Guardian.com said, “is not an aberration. There are also a number of other border towns with similar wildlife markets, also seemingly meant for wealthy Chinese tourists.
But even if governments step up the fight against wildlife trafficking,” Guardian.com continued, “there is still the problem of demand so great that today China has more tigers bred solely for killing than there are wild tigers on the planet: around 5,000 versus 3,200.
“Promises to end illegal tiger trade are empty,” said Environmental Investigation Agency tiger campaign chief Debbie Banks, “unless law and policy in China are changed to end domestic trade in all tiger parts and products.”
Many other species involved
Tiger trafficking, however, is only one high-profile part of a wildlife traffic running into China and Vietnam, often through Laos, which has in recent years pushed toward extinction four of the world’s six rhino species and all eight pangolin species, and has depleted populations of lorises, civets, turtles, snakes, frogs, and some bird species throughout Southeast Asia, parts of Africa, and in the case of turtles, even the United States.
The immediate issue for CITES, however, is the Laotian role as a conduit for routing poached elephant ivory into China.
China suspends ivory trade
China on February 26, 2015 avoided the possibility of facing a similar CITES recommendation for a suspension of trade in CITES-listed wildlife and wildlife products by announcing a one-year ban on imports of African ivory carvings acquired after the CITES was formed in 1975.
“In a brief statement on its website, the State Forestry Administration said it would halt administrative approval for the imports until February 26, 2016,” summarized Xinhua News Agency editor Mu Xuequan. “The agency said the move is to protect African elephants, and the one-year time frame is designed to assess the effects.
“Ivory carvings and their sales are legal in China,” Mu Xuequan continued, “if the activities conform with certain regulations. Imports of ivory and its products must be permitted by the State Forestry Administration. According to the rules, raw elephant ivory and its products should be processed at designated places, sold at fixed shops, and tracked on an individual item basis. Each legal ivory product can be tracked through a unique photo ID and is recorded in a database.”
Thailand received a CITES warning to produce a national ivory action plan in December 2012. The Thai national ivory action plan received CITES approval in December 2014.
U.S. offered reward for trafficker
The severity of the Laotian wildlife trafficking crisis, and recognition of governmental collusion with traffickers, was underscored in November 2013 when the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $1 million for information leading to the dissolution of the Xaysavang Network, a trafficking syndicate headed by Laotian businessman Vixay Keosavang.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the syndicate “facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos and other species,” for products such as ivory,” operating in Malaysia, Mozambique, South Africa, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as Laos and China.
“Laos is fast gaining a reputation as a lawless state,” commented Melinda Boh of MekongCommons.org. “It has shown unwillingness to arrest Vixay Keosavang, while it faces continuing criticism for its intransigence in not being serious about investigating the high-profile disappearance of Sombath Somphone,” a prominent Laotian environmentalist who vanished after being detained at a police checkpoint in December 2012.
“Moreover,” Boh continued, “Laos continues to face allegations of human rights violations, money laundering and profligate illegal logging that are causing both international concern to foreign donors and local frustration.”
Because the Laotian wildlife traffic is already conducted in defiance of international treaties, public opinion, and Laotian law as well as the laws of most of Laos’ major trading partners, the CITES recommendation that CITES member nations should “suspend commercial trade in specimens of CITES-listed species” may be of strictly symbolic importance.”
Such would not be the case, however, for China, where enthusiasm for wildlife protection has rapidly gained momentum in recent decades––perhaps even more rapidly than the demand for wildlife products, which comes from a relatively narrow segment of the Chinese population, mostly from the southern part of the country.
(See also “Armor is not enough to protect pangolins,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-Ev.)
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