Myanmar has suddenly changed a law allowing the commercial farming of tigers, pangolins and other endangered species. Conservationists have warned that this change risks further fuelling demand in China for rare wildlife products.
The country is already a hub for the illegal trafficking of wildlife, a trade driven by demand from neighboring China and worth an estimated $20 billion worldwide.
In June, Myanmar’s Forest Department quietly gave the green light to private zoos to apply for licenses to breed 90 species, more than 20 of which are endangered or critically endangered.
It was an unexpected move that caught conservation groups off-guard but was explained by the Forest Department as a way to help reduce poaching of wild species and illegal breeding.
But conservationists say commercial farming in the long-term legitimizes the use of endangered species and fuels market demand.
“Commercial trade has been shown to increase illegal trade in wildlife by creating a parallel market and boosting overall demand for wild animal products,” conservation groups World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) said in a joint statement.
Breeding Siamese crocodiles for their skin
Tigers appear on the list alongside pangolins, elephants, various species of vulture and the Irrawaddy dolphin, of which only a few dozen remain in the wild in the country. The critically endangered Siamese crocodile can now even be bred for its meat and skin.
Experts also fear that Myanmar’s lack of capacity to regulate the trade increases the risk of disease spillover to humans from animals and might even cause the ‘next COVID-19’.
John Goodrich from global wild cat conservation organization Panthera warned farming can also “provide a means for laundering wild specimens”, complicating efforts to control the trade.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) does allow captive breeding of certain endangered species, but only under strict regulation.
But Myanmar’s ability to police the trade is disputed, say environmental groups, who fear the country risks following in the footsteps of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, which have lost much of their wildlife.
Conservationists fear the rule change risks undermining all the progress Myanmar had made in recent years to end the illegal wildlife trade.