There is a monster chewing its way through the wildlife of its smaller, weaker Southeast Asian neighbors. The monster can change forms—like a shape-shifter—but it goes by one name: China. The region’s wildlife is rapidly disappearing, being sucked into the vortex of the illegal wildlife trade that leads to China.
In the Burmese border town of Mong-La, everything from tree-dwelling civets to clouded leopards, from tiger claws to elephant skin, and from pangolin scales to bear gall bladder is on sale, with the vast majority of customers coming over the border from Yunnan. National Geographic just this month ran a stunning if disturbing article on the plight of the “dinosaur of the skies”—the majestic Helmeted Hornbill.
The Hornbills’ numbers are crashing and in a few short years have been downgraded from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The Chinese are after their heads, literally. Their solid red casques are considered “red ivory” They are actually made of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails and, incidentally, rhino horn, and rhinoceros are another species which have been virtually wiped off the face of the Southeast Asian map thanks to a misplaced belief that ground rhino horn can cure cancer and a host of other human ailments.
So dire is the situation of the Helmeted Hornbill that governments in this species range (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, and Myanmar) have recently formed a joint management and conservation plan to attempt to ensure that this otherworldly bird has a future outside of China’s markets. Asia Sentinel also published a story specifically about the hornbill hunters of Sumatra last year, and how those hornbill heads are sold to Chinese middlemen in the city of Medan.
Mainland Chinese investors in Singapore and Chinese Singaporeans are buying—mostly illicitly—so much sand from Cambodia’s coastal Koh Kong provincethat irreparable environmental damage is now becoming manifest. A well-informed source told me that one sand barge was so enormous that it took eight tugboats to pull it to Singapore. Activists from the NGO Mother Nature were arrested after filming illegal sand barges in Cambodia, and some of this group’s members had to flee to Thailand. The removal of riverbed sand—which is prized construction material—annihilates the river’s ecology, decimating fish populations and the wildlife that depends on them, such as river dolphins, otters, and fishing cats. Chinese investors are also behind the recent clearing of mangrove forests in Koh Kong, another nefarious activity that will cause significant environmental degradation.
Chinese developers, backed by Beijing, have begun the initial stages of construction on a highly controversial hydroelectric dam in Sumatra’s Batang Toru forest, which is home to a Critically Endangered population of Sumatran Orangutan, as well as Sumatran tigers and Helmeted Hornbills—all listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, with the last two being Critically Endangered largely due to Chinese demand for their carcasses. Now they are all even more endangered as a result of this dam, which will flood prime forest habitat and put the 800 or so orangutans—as well as other species—at immediate risk of extinction (in the case of this sub-species orangutan, which is only found in Batang Toru) and local extinction (for tigers and helmeted hornbills).
Over in Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, China Power Investment, a hydroelectric company, is investing US$17 billion in a massive dam project on the Kayan River, a project which will flood primary forest in the Heart of Borneo and put a myriad of wildlife species at risk and will forever change the ecology of this region. Chinese companies are also connected with illegal logging in prime Bornean orangutan habitat in West Kalimantan’s Sungai Putri Landscape, a debacle which has been ongoing for over two years’ now.
The ghastly trade in elephant skins from Myanmar has been driven largely by Chinese demand, as is so often the case for wildlife products from the region, and Burmese timber continues to make its way into Yunnan. Much has already been written about the Chinese enclave in northern Laos where casinos also serve up barbecued tiger, bear, and