Wildlife restaurants thrive in Myanmar
Not all visitors toMyanmar's Golden Mountain Pagoda are there for serenity and enlightenment.Many make the trip for the less spiritual pursuit of dining onendangered wildlife at one of the specialist restaurants thatsurround the holy site, a huge rock balanced on a mountainside andtopped with a pagoda supposedly enshrining hairs of the Buddha.
"A small dish will cost 5,000 kyats (6 dollars), medium 8,000kyats (10 dollars) and large 10,000 kyats (12 dollars)," said ShanLay, who runs one of at least seven restaurants serving the fare.
On his butcher's table lie the remains of Asian porcupine, barkingdeer, monkeys, Asian sun bear, fishing cats, otters and snakes.
"The meats can be served fried, boiled, smoked or simmered in adelicious curry sauce," Shan Lay advised.
Most pilgrims to the Kyeik Hti Yoe Pagoda in the Mon state, 160kilometres north-east of Yangon, have few qualms about enjoying somewildlife dishes at the religious site, even though most of thespecies on sale are endangered and protected by law.
The Eager customers
The most eager customers tend to be Chinese and ethnic Shan, fromthe eastern state of the same name, a few hundred kilometres north ofMon state on the Chinese border, according to restaurant owners.
"If lots of Chinese come, all the meat stocks are quickly soldout," said Ma Ma, another restaurant owner. "They even order livesnakes." The meats are supplied from jungles in the neighbouring Karenstate to the east, he said.
"We buy the wildlife from professional hunters," said Ma Ma. "Thehunters are Kayin (Karen) and they are very skilled in catching wildanimals. They can catch as much as we ask for." The Karen are also skilled at hunting other quarry. The KarenNational Union (KNU) has been fighting Myanmar soldiers since itdeclared war on the central government in 1949, making it one of theworld's longest-running insurgencies.
The insurgents control swathes of jungle territory in the state,where illegal logging and poaching have been rife for decades.
There is a large domestic market for exotic meats in Myanmar,where there is no real taboo against eating endangered species, and ahuge export market to neighbouring China, Laos and Thailand, activists against animal trafficking said.
Within the country, the restaurants around Kyeik Hti Yoe Pagodaare not exceptional.
"Wildlife restaurants are all over places which are near or haveaccess to the forest," said Win Aung, owner of the Woodland Group, ateak exporter, and a Myanmar conservationist.
More wildlife was caught and sold "especially when the forestbecomes degraded by over-extraction or illegal logging, which shrink the forest areas so more wildlife becomes vulnerable," he said.
In the former capital Yangon, snake meat, monkey and long-finnedeel are available at the Cast Iron Market, near the city's Chinatown.
No one knows the exact extent of the wildlife trade in Myanmar,which has been isolated from international aid for the past twodecades by economic sanctions against the former military government.
"We're late in Burma," said Steven Galster, founder and directorof Freeland Foundation, a Bangkok-based group fighting animal and human trafficking across Asia.
'Clearing out tigers'
"The sanctions kept us out," said Galster, whose foundationreceives funding from the US government. "The Americans did that, not the Burmese." From 1995 to 2001 Galster operated small projects in Myanmar using non-US funding, after the Myanmar Forestry Department appealed for assistance in cracking down on the prolific trade in protectedwildlife.
"We were operating in the Sagaing division," in the far west ofthe country, Galster said. Hunting groups of the local Chin ethnic population "had gotten into the national parks and protected areas and were very efficient in clearing out the tigers." A few years ago, Myanmar claimed to have at least 1,000 tigers inthe wild. Now the estimate is closer to 50-100, due to the poaching.
"When the tigers were gone they started moving on to otherspecies, like clouded leopards," Galster said.
As Myanmar opens up and ushers in new reforms, President TheinSein's administration is trying to crack down on poaching and trade,although the scope of the problem and shortage of resources aredaunting.
"Last year, surprise checks for protected wild animals wereconducted periodically" at restaurants and around protected areas, aMyanmar Forestry Department official said in December, speaking oncondition of anonymity.
In 2013,"we are going to implement the surprise checks andpatrolling in the forest according to the plan. The main difficultyis the shortage of the staff and insufficient budget," he said.