Yangon Strives to Rid City of Illegal Wildlife Trade

By Thazin Hlaing 3 December 2018

The Yangon Region Forest Department is working with international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to designate Yangon as the first city in Southeast Asia free of the illegal wildlife trade. Director U Thein Toe recently sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Thazin Hlaing to discuss what steps the department was taking to fight the illegal wildlife trade in Myanmar’s commercial capital.

The Forest Department has educated souvenir shops about preventing wildlife trade in Yangon. Has it taken action against any violators?

We haven’t for the time being. But to prevent elephant poaching, we are cooperating with partner INGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Society Organization as well as the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, Forestry Police and Myanmar Police Force. Combined teams of those officials including ward and village administrators conduct regular patrols in the forests. As the Protection of Biodiversity and Conservation Areas Law has been enacted, we have plans to make Yangon free of the illegal wildlife trade.

Is Yangon the first in Myanmar to declare a no-illegal wildlife trade zone?

We have been working on it. Other cities will also follow suit. The law is in effect across the country.

What will the difficulties be? Do you think the idea is feasible?

Yangon is the city that receives the most international travelers to Myanmar. Travelers come to Yangon both by air and by ship. So there is more illegal wildlife trade compared to other cities. We want to ban the making of souvenirs and handicrafts with animal parts that are smuggled into Yangon from various parts of the country.

Since last year, we have educated souvenir shops that usually sell souvenirs made of animal parts at Bogyoke Market as well as Shwedagon Pagoda to stop selling them. And we have also done the same with restaurants that sell wildlife meat. And we assume we have educated them enough to stop selling them. And as a new law has been enacted, we have issued a warning that we will take harsh action against violations.

 What action will be taken?

The law sets a minimum imprisonment of three years and a maximum imprisonment of 10 years for hunting and illegally trading wildlife protected under by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Myanmar is a signatory. So if someone is found guilty, he will be imprisoned.

Fines can also be imposed. But it depends on the thinking and decision of the judge. The advantage of this law is that it fully protects endangered wildlife species that are listed by CITES.

What are the fully protected wildlife species?

For example, elephants, tigers, bears and pangolins. Among bird species, peacocks and hornbills are fully protected. And among reptiles, pythons and so on are fully protected.

How many souvenir shops and restaurants sell wildlife parts and meat in Yangon?

Souvenir shops at Shwedagon Pagoda and Bogyoke Market sell souvenirs made of wildlife parts, and the rest are restaurants. There are a certain number of them in town. I don’t want to disclose details.

What things are found most on the market?

Barking deer, sambar and snake meat are usually eaten. And lucky charms and handicrafts made of elephant tusks, tiger teeth and boar tusks are sold. Selling those things amounts to illegal wildlife trade. Even toys made of animal parts are part of the illegal wildlife trade.

What is the cause of the extinction of wildlife and flora?

The main cause is humans. Because they are rare things, rich foreigners buy them at high prices to consume or make medicine and cosmetics from them. So they are hunted to the brink of extinction.

Previously, wild elephants were poached for their tusks. But now they are hunted also for their trunks, hide and meat. So every part of an elephant is sold on the illegal market now. This is due to the demand from the neighboring country [China].

Are all animal parts sold on the market in Yangon illegal? Is some part of the business legal?

There is a law regarding this. Some people have private elephants. If those elephants die of disease or old age, the owners have to inform the nearest forest department, whose vet will check the cause of death and issue a death certificate along with a documentary photo. Owners are allowed to keep the parts from their dead elephants in that case.

Some ethnic people wear wildlife parts as ornaments as a part of their traditional garb. In that case, they can also wear them by registering them. If people’s ancestors have registered their own wildlife, the following generations have the right to own their parts. But trading them to a third party is not allowed.

So you mean all the things that are not registered with the government are illegal?

Yes they are.

So is anything officially registered in Yangon?

There are hardly any privately owned elephants in Yangon. And ethnic people almost never wear their traditional garb in Yangon. So nothing is registered.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.