Illicit trade in tigers and leopards has increased along Myanmar's border with China over the past 16 years, while it has waned on the country's border with Thailand, according to a new study published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Myanmar is home to many iconic protected wildlife species that consumers demand — and that attracts criminal wildlife traffickers, Heather Sohl, the World Wildlife Fund's UK-based species expert, told VICE News.
"Because of its geographical location, Myanmar provides a transit route for the smuggling of illegal products," said Sohl, who was not involved in the study. "So it's important that Myanmar and the governments there are able to look at effectively closing down those routes."
An estimated 3,000 tigers remain in the world today compared to 100,000 that roamed Asia's jungles, swamps, and savannas at the end of the 19th century. Only 35 remain in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the plight of smaller cats, like clouded leopards and Asiatic golden cats, is even less well understood than the tiger's.
Wild animals — and their parts — are sought after as status symbols, traditional medicines, and aphrodisiacs. Despite international prohibitions on their sale, large mammals, like rhinos, elephants, and big cats, teeter ever closer to extinction.
Myanmar has undergone democratic reforms in recent years. Yet, conservationists worry that with diminished isolation comes increased interest in mining its ecosystems of rare flora and fauna.
During 19 visits to Myanmar's border markets, researchers counted over 2,000 wild cat parts for sale, likely coming from no fewer than 1669 individuals. Clouded leopards were the most common species, numbering nearly 500. Scientists remain uncertain of how many clouded leopards reside in Myanmar, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks them as vulnerable — a ranking just below endangered. Leopard cats — distinct from clouded leopards — and golden cats were next among the small cats, numbering 458 and 135, respectively.
"I think the numbers we see in these markets are indeed large enough to be of concern," Vincent Nijman, a conservation biologist and anthropology professor at the UK's Oxford Brookes University and one of the study's authors, told VICE News.
The study is unusual because information about the extent of wildlife trade usually comes from large seizures of illicit animal parts. Few conservation scientists venture into markets to count what's for sale.
'Perhaps you go gambling, and once you win, you celebrate with a few girls. And then, while you're there, you buy some wildlife or you consume some wildlife.'
"There are not many places in the world where you walk in and see 10 tiger skins and 30 tusks, and just about any animal in your animal encyclopedia is for sale there," he said.
Researchers conducted their investigation in two of Myanmar's large border markets: Mong La, near China's border, and Tachilek, near the border with Thailand. Wildlife trade in these two cities has taken decidedly different trajectories.
In 2006, there were six wildlife shops in Mong La; this year there were 21 shops. Tachilek is a different story, though. The number of wildlife shops has declined from 35 in 1998 to only six in 2013.
The explanation, says Nijman, might lie in broader economic factors. Mong La, he said, is full of casinos and prostitutes.
"Perhaps you go gambling, and once you win, you celebrate with a few girls. And then, while you're there, you buy some wildlife or you consume some wildlife," he told VICE News. "There are probably half a dozen shops with very large glass tanks of tiger wine."
Tiger wine is an alcoholic drink containing ginseng, herbs, and tiger bones. Tiger bones are prized in traditional Chinese medicine because they are thought to treat ailments, ranging from arthritis to low libido.
Nijman says Mong La could be one of the largest unregulated wildlife markets in Asia. Earlier this year, less than a week after the Chinese government destroyed six metric tons of ivory, Nijman and the wildlife trade group TRAFFIC found 3300 pieces of ivory and close to 50 raw ivory elephant tusks openly for sale.
In Tachilek, however, shops that once sold ivory now sell mobile phones. Researchers think the shift might be related to increased enforcement in Thailand.
In both cities, they observed a complete lack of enforcement by Myanmar officials.
China, Thailand, and Myanmar are each parties to CITES, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.
"If all of the governments that have signed up to CITES actually implemented all the commitments that they have agreed to, then we wouldn't be having this conversation right now," Sohl said.
The World Wildlife Fund is pushing for greater CITES enforcement. It is asking authorities to suspend legal, economically important, trade in plants and animals in countries that do not comply with their treaty obligations. It's also important, Sohl said, to work on reducing demand from countries buying wildlife products.
"The illegal wildlife trade situation has reached proportions that we've never seen before," Sohl told VICE News. "Certainly we're facing unprecedented levels of poaching. We are seeing devastating impacts. But at the same time I've never seen the level of political attention to illegal wildlife trade and combating wildlife crime."
Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller