Sunday, March 22, 2015

Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone- A Paradise for Wildlife Crime

Tiger skins and a stuffed crocodile being sold at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.

A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has indicated that the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ) in Laos is a haven for peddlers of endangered wildlife. This is seen as meat and other body parts of endangered species are being openly sold for public consumption. The report, titled "Sin City", specified how animals like bears, pangolins, tigers, and others are being bred in captivity for their meat and body parts. Written mutually by the EIA and Education for Nature Vietnam, the report pointed out that while Laos' wildlife laws are feeble, there is not even a pretext of enforcement in the GT SEZ. This means that buyers and sellers are free to trade a host of endangered species poached from Asia and Africa, and smuggled to the zone making it a paradise for wildlife crime. GT SEZ, which covers an area of 3,000 hectares, is controlled by the Chinese Kings Romans Group. The government of Laos is reportedly a 20 percent investor in the project, whose targeted goal is to draw foreign transaction in trade and tourism to propel local economic surge.
Map of the GT SEZ

The report claimed that even though GT SEZ is located on land rented out by the government of Laos, it appears to be more like a continuation of China. That is, it is run on Beijing time, majority of signs are written in Mandarin, most of the workers are Chinese citizens, and the main currency is the Chinese yuan. In addition to Chinese sellers, there is also a majority of Chinese customers who believe that the meat and body parts of smuggled animals contain aphrodisiac and curative features. The EIA discovered, during its investigation, that several species of animals sold and consumed in the region are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). For example, a restaurant in the GT SEZ exhibited "saute tiger meat" and "tiger bone wine" on its menu, while another advertised dishes made of monitor lizards, pangolins, bear paws, snakes, and turtles. Investigators even noticed a live bear cub and a python kept in cages by the restaurant's entrance and the kitchen's exit separately--both of which were available to eat on request. Furthermore, the report also described the open sale for Asiatic black bears, ivory products, rhino horns, stuffed tigers, and tiger and leopard skins. It also asserted that illegal tiger farms are putting intense pressure on the international tiger population, which is alarmingly close to extinction with as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wild. In the report, the EIA pressed the government to ratify a "zero tolerance" policy toward the illegal wildlife trade and also demanded to have a multi-agency task force set up to tackle the issue.
Ivory products on sale in Vientiane (left) and bear paws soaked in alcohol.

The findings made by the EIA on the GT SEZ are absolutely deplorable. They indicate that the region is a major hub for the illegal wildlife trade and other wildlife crimes that threaten to eradicate Africa's and Asia's endangered species. This shows that Laos, as a whole, is the center of such illicit activities due to its crucial location and frail law enforcement. The government of Laos must act fast in order to eradicate wildlife crimes taking place on the country's soil if it wants to help in the battle against such crimes on a global scale. The country's law enforcement needs to be significantly improvised in an effort to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. In addition, anybody suspected of being involved in the illegal wildlife trade should be given the stiffest form of punishment in order to send the message to the public that wildlife crimes will not be tolerated and never be taken lightly. Furthermore, victims of the wildlife trade are being bred in captivity for their body parts and meat. This is especially seen in the case of tiger farms. Such facilities should be targeted, closed down, their operators should be tried under the full extent of the law, and the animals should be transferred to animal sanctuaries where they would be correctly cared for. Laos has made a name for itself as a haven for wildlife smuggling based on the findings made by the EIA and urgently needs to start making change in its attitude and behavior towards wildlife crimes. Otherwise, this habit of allowing the illegal wildlife trade would greatly affect its reputation.

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