Every September since he was a teenager, Zi Phong* has set off from his village in Kachin State’s northern Putao township with a month’s worth of rations and a single-shot tumi rifle on his back. Trekking through dense mountain forests, the Rawang hunter, now 49, sets steel traps every 6.5 to 8 kilometres (4 to 5 miles) and camps out along the way.
The hunting season, which lasts until the first snowfall around December, is grueling. For shelter, Zi Phong fastens a tent out of thin plastic sheeting, cushioning the ground with piles of leaves. He carries no blanket to avoid the extra weight, instead relying on layers of thick clothes and a campfire for warmth. To reduce costs and fill his stomach, he mixes his rice with a powder made from the trunk of a fishtail palm. He is constantly on alert for snakes and other dangerous animals, and also for falling trees, which is how a fellow hunter met his death.
Over the years Zi Phong has caught wild boars, deer known as muntjacs, gibbons and long-horned mountain goats called ibexes. But mostly he hunts for bears, whose bile is prized in traditional Chinese medicine and is also an ingredient in China’s recommended treatments for COVID-19. “We normally catch live bears with traps, and then shoot them with tumi rifles to kill them,” said Zi Phong. “After the bears die, we take out their gall bladders.”
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Unable to carry a heavy load down the mountain, he typically cooks some bear meat with his fellow hunters and leaves most of the carcasses behind, before travelling to Putao to connect with buyers. Zi Phong knows little about the international bile trade — part of a global illegal trade in wildlife that the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international nonprofit, estimates is worth over US$17 billion annually — other than that the gall bladders are resold at the China border.
But he knows that hunting is getting more difficult, even as he becomes ever more reliant on the income it generates. For starters, bears are becoming scarce: in his best year, Zi Phong once caught 12, but last year he only caught two.
At the same time, Zi Phong said that the COVID-19 pandemic and Myanmar’s military coup have made his work more dangerous and increased competition from other hunters. He says buyers have offered him significantly less since the start of the pandemic when China began restricting the movement of people and goods across the border. “Now, buyers use many excuses like difficult transportation, border closures and the coronavirus and don’t give us a good price,” he said.
In past years, he sometimes worked for daily wages in construction to supplement his income, but these jobs have dried up, and hunting is now his only source of income. Meanwhile, the price of rice and basic goods, already high due to transport costs, has risen.
Zi Phong also fears that he could be mistaken for a member of the anti-coup resistance, which is largely reliant on tumi rifles, when going out to hunt. “Before the coup, when we passed through [military] checkpoints, we gave soldiers instant coffee or alcohol,” he said. “We could easily carry our tumi rifles and gunpowder, but now, [soldiers] could interrogate or harm us… They are worried that people will attack them.”
But Zi Phong says he has few alternative ways to earn a living. “After the coup, there was an increase in hunting wild animals because there were no other job options in Putao,” he said. “I have worked as a hunter since I was very young, and I am not educated. If I don’t hunt, I don’t know what else to do.”
Kachin State’s bounty
Kachin State is home to some of Myanmar’s most biodiverse forests, as well as its largest national parks.
In the 1990s, the Wildlife Conservation Society began working with the Forest Department to establish and monitor protected areas. The partnership led to the creation of the Hkakabo Razi National Park, established in 1998 over 3,800 sq km of Nawngmun Township, and the Hponkan Razi Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 2003 over 2,700 sq km of Putao and Machanbaw townships.
The Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 2004 and expanded to its current 17,000 sq km in 2010, is Myanmar’s largest conservation area. Also in 2010, the entire 21,000 sq km valley was designated as the world’s largest tiger reserve.
But since these parks were established, wildlife numbers have dwindled, residents say. Ah Hpu*, a retired Lisu hunter, described abundant wildlife in the 1990s in the Hukawng valley and forests between Tanai and Putao, where he claims to have caught tigers, pangolins and bears, and to have killed numerous elephants by shooting them with a poison arrow and then with a tumi rifle. “When we shoot, we must target the elephant’s heart,” he said.
Although it was a risky business — Ah Hpu was nearly trampled by an elephant, and on another occasion a wild bison rammed his hunting partner to death — he earned a hefty sum from his hunting, mostly by selling ivory, bear gall bladders and other products to Chinese buyers. After helping a Myanmar military colonel kill an elephant, he was even granted permission to own and carry a gun, he said.
The days of such bountiful hunting in Kachin are now over. Tigers have disappeared, while elephants, pangolins and bears have dwindled significantly, local sources told Frontier. Other globally threatened species that are hunted in Kachin’s forests include clouded leopards, black musk deer, Hoolock gibbons, rufous-necked hornbills, and wild bovines known as gaurs and takins.
Civil society workers and local people told Frontier they believed that the creation of the parks contributed to the decline of wildlife populations. They said communities had used forest resources sustainably for generations but when areas came under Forest Department management, and commercial wildlife hunting and trading were banned, customs such as not hunting during animals’ breeding seasons were largely abandoned.
“In the past, our people had their own land where they could manage the environment and wildlife,” said Hsar Aung*, an ethnic Rawang from a village in the Hkakabo Razi mountains. “After Hkakabo Razi was designated a national park, those groups told the local people that they no longer owned the land. Since then, hunting has become uncontrollable.”
Myat*, an environmental activist from Putao, added that many local people felt the park designations deprived them of their livelihood. “When the government tried to conserve the forest and wildlife, they didn’t consider the local community’s livelihoods,” he said. “From the locals’ point of view, their actions seemed to value wildlife over humans.”
Conservation efforts did not fare better in the Hukawng Valley, where gold mining has been rampant since the early 2000s. In 2006, the Myanmar military gave permission to the Yuzana Company, owned by crony U Htay Myint, to conduct agribusiness over 800 sq km. In 2008, the military regime also gave exploration rights to the Russian energy company Nobel Oil; the same year it contracted Jadeland, owned by Kachin tycoon Yup Zau Hkawng, to build a road, and permitted the company to log 2,000 acres in the valley.
“Tiger populations gradually vanished since the tiger reserve project started,” said Htoi San*, a local civil society worker. “Wildlife conservation is good and necessary, but because conservation efforts were superficial and fake, they weren’t successful. They caused more damage than good.”
The China factor
At the same time as the parks were being established, China’s rapid growth was creating huge demand for wildlife products from countries such as Myanmar.
From 2007 to 2010, zoologist Dr Sapai Min conducted field research at 11 sites across Kachin State and identified 46 species for sale that were all either protected under Myanmar law, globally threatened, or of local or regional conservation concern.
She told Frontier that her research found that middlemen often came to hunters to collect items for trade. “They [hunters] said that they didn’t discriminate against any animals. They hunted all types of animals that they could get to fulfill their livelihood needs,” she said. “After the hunters knew which animal parts could get what prices, they hunted more of the animals that could get higher prices.”
While wild meat and some animal parts were sold within Myanmar, the most lucrative products, she found, were mainly sold across the Chinese border via eight transit routes ending at the border towns of Kangfang, Hpimaw, Pangwa, Kanpiketee, Laiza, Loije and Makungam in Kachin State, and Muse in Shan State.
A decade on from that research, China is still the main destination for high-value wildlife products from Kachin, local sources told Frontier. They described well-organised networks of hunters, mostly from the Lisu and Rawang ethnic groups, and buyers who are mostly Lisu and Chinese. “Traders give free traps to hunters,” said Myat, the environmental activist from Putao. “They all have connections. Hunters don’t need to sell [high-value] wildlife in open-air markets because buyers are waiting to buy it [privately].”
Since the pandemic, the global wildlife trade has come under closer scrutiny due to its public health risks, and in China authorities have taken some steps to crack down on it. But this appears not to have stopped the movement of wildlife products across its border with Myanmar.
Zi Phong, the Rawang hunter, said he continues to sell most of his products to Lisu buyers who travel back and forth between the China border and Putao. “When they arrive in Putao, they phone us [hunters]. When we catch wildlife, we call them and sell it to them directly if we can agree on a price,” he said.
Some buyers even send people to hunting sites to pick up wildlife products. “There are around 10 Lisu bosses who are looking for expensive, rare wildlife products, but [also] many people like me,” said U Lar Mar*, an ethnic Lisu who travels for two days on his motorbike and another week on foot to reach hunters in northern Kachin. The buyers, he said, resell the products across the China border. “My job is to negotiate the price. [Bosses] pay us in advance if we need.”
Among the products he transports are musk deer glands — used in some perfumes and traditional Chinese medicine — bear bile, bear claws, ibex horns, and non-animal products including cordyceps, a fungus used for medicinal purposes. “These are the products the big Lisu and Chinese buyers are looking for,” he said.
Frontier was unable to confirm whether any armed groups are profiting from Kachin’s wildlife trade. However, one local person involved in conservation work in northern Kachin said he thought it was likely that military-aligned militias and Border Guard Forces are involved in facilitating the trafficking of high-value wildlife products into China.
“They will do anything that is profitable for them. They don’t care at all about wildlife conservation,” he said.
Post-coup trade takes off
Some local sources who were critical of past conservation efforts expressed concern that the void in regulation left by the coup would be even worse for Kachin’s wildlife. Chang Seng*, a local person involved in wildlife conservation in Putao, said there had been some improvements to the Forest Department’s approach in recent years. But since the coup, many department workers had joined the mass strike of civil servants known as the Civil Disobedience Movement, and those who remained in their posts were largely too afraid to work in the field.
“I believe that if the government is good, conservation will achieve some success. But especially at this time, none of the conservation work will have an impact,” he said.
Others said the illegal wildlife trade was now taking place more openly. “It seems like there is no government in Putao right now,” said Zi Phong, the Rawang hunter. “There is a signboard that states ‘No wildlife selling’ but underneath it, people are selling muntjacs and bear meat.”
Wildlife products are also sold openly online. In April, a World Wildlife Fund report found that wildlife advertisements from Myanmar users on Facebook increased by 74 percent in 2021, with more than 11,000 products from 173 species advertised.
Although Facebook bans content related to the trade of endangered species or their parts, it has been accused of weak enforcement. In April, a spokesperson told Reuters that the company had introduced technology to remove prohibited content pertaining to the illegal wildlife trade, but added that those engaging in the trade were “persistent and constantly evolving their tactics”.
Frontier recently found Facebook business pages advertising products they claimed to be from Kachin, including bear gall bladders, tiger bones and penises, otter penises, python innards, ibex and musk deer horns, and ibex legs. Meanwhile, public posts on personal Facebook pages were advertising not only animal parts but also live animals, including bears and pangolins.
U Lar Mar, who picks up wildlife for buyers to resell in China, said he faces few obstacles conducting his business. “There is no problem if we [traders] keep our Citizenship Scrutiny Card and COVID vaccination certificate while we are travelling,” he said. “I would say trading wildlife became freer after the coup, but carrying weapons became stricter.”
In Putao, Myat, the environmental activist, said that Forest Department workers were no longer inspecting the market, enabling people to sell wild meat and wildlife parts openly.
He also said that hunting had increased. “Now, the country is in political turmoil. Existing hunters are depending solely on hunting and many others are working in the hunting or trading business too.”
The coup, he added, has given some hunters easy access to better weapons, as the junta enlists support from local militias to fight against the Kachin Independence Army and anti-coup People’s Defense Forces. “After the coup, the [Rawang] militia was present in every town and the military provided guns for them. The hunters used those guns provided by the military,” he said. “Therefore, I would say the weapons hunters use have become more advanced.”
In the Hukawng Valley, Htoi San said prospects for wildlife conservation have also worsened since the coup. “Many types of illegal trade and business have increased. Because of that, the very few animals that are left have a high chance to be hunted and disappear forever,” he said. “Not only is there no one to protect people’s lives; there is no-one to protect animals’ lives.”
Still, he and other civil society workers are striving to promote wildlife conservation as much as they can. “We are educating people that this is our land and we have to protect it by ourselves,” he said.
* denotes the use of a pseudonym upon request for safety reasons.
Jauman Naw contributed to this report.