MONG LA, Shan State — A small elephant tusk will cost you 800 yuan (US$130). A snakeskin is 1,000 yuan, and leopard skin can be bought for 4,000 yuan per kilogram. Despite wild tigers being extremely scarce, you can buy a pair of the big cat’s feet for 1,000 yuan, and live ones are said to be sold occasionally for 1 million yuan ($160,000).
This is the wildlife market in Mong La, an enclave on the Chinese border in the far east of Burma’s Shan State. The international trading bans signed by Burma’s government are not applied here, and endangered animals and their parts are openly sold and bought—in the Chinese currency—for traditional medicine, ornaments, and, often, food.
In the restaurants, the meat of the muntjac, or barking dear, goes for 300 yuan per kilo. Gecko is 1,600 yuan and a rare anteater-like pangolin costs 600 yuan.
Animals in tiny cages sit in front of restaurants, giving the impression of a particularly inhumane zoo. The creatures endure poor treatment only to eventually be selected for the cooking pot by hungry passers-by. One of the caged animals, a baby monkey, cowers fearfully away from the humans checking him out.
Hundreds of visitors from mainland China come to Mong La daily. They come to play in the casinos, visit prostitutes and enjoy the “wild” cuisine—at prices that most in Burma could not afford.
The public market in Mong La gets busy at about 4am, when traders from the surrounding countryside come to deliver their wares. Goods sold by weight are priced by the jin, the Chinese measure that is equivalent to 597 grams.
“Most of the traders are Chinese. They have good connections with people in China to export the wildlife there,” said a local resident, Min Thu, explaining that many of the animals are sold live, but killed and skinned in the market for easier transportation.
He said he once saw a tiger sold at auction in one of the town’s casinos. “It was very big tiger. In the auction, a Chinese man bought it for 1 million yuan,” Min Thu said.
An ethnic Shan woman selling wildlife in the market, who refused to give her name, displayed in her stall two deer heads with horns; leopard skins; tiger bones and paws; monkey penises and teeth; and the skins of a bear and a pangolin. These rare items are used in Chinese traditional medicine, but also in home décor or for magical amulets.
She said most of the wildlife on sale comes from traders in the nearby semi-autonomous Wa region.
“I got these things from Tangyan [a town in the Wa region]. I bought it from the local people. We can’t find it here anymore,” she said. “Some animals we also get from different parts of Shan State.”
The market has birds as well: parrots and the Indian grackle, a species similar to the myna bird that can be trained to mimic speech.
There is also chopped up elephant skin—50 yuan for a small piece. The skin is burned, and the ash mixed with water to create a medicinal drink.
“You can use it when you have stomach problem,” said the ethnic Palaung girl, about 16, selling the skin. “After you take it, you will feel better.”
Most of the wildlife traders in the public market did not allow reporters to photograph their trade. One woman said they could face punishment from local authority—the National Democratic Alliance Army.
The armed group runs the town outside of Burmese government rule, and requires that traders apply for permission, likely earning dues from the lucrative trade in endangered species.