Illegal wildlife trade along the Burma-China border - in pictures (full set)

My photo story which exposes the illegal wildlife trade taking place on both sides of the Burma-China border was published in The Guardian newspaper today.

They used eleven of my photos in their Environment section. Here's the full set.

Illegal Wildlife Trade in Mong La, Shan State Special Region Four, Burma

MONG LA, SHAN STATE SPECIAL REGION FOUR, BURMA - The town of Mong La in Burma's Shan state, close to the border with China, is at the crossroads of illegal wildlife trade routes that are sucking the forests, jungles and plains of India, Burma, Laos and Thailand dry of their native animals and plants – many of them endangered.

Mong La is a notorious sin city of a border town, a lawless black hole where the trafficking of arms, drugs and women is rife. In order to reach it, you have to travel illegally by motorbike across an international border, along a bumpy dirt track that winds its way through rubber plantations and leafy jungle.

It takes around 20 minutes, and along the way you pass impromptu checkpoints set up by local people, ethnic militia and the National Democratic Alliance army, before finally being admitted by Burmese government troops.

I spent the day exploring the illegal wildlife markets and restaurants, but it was only after exiting Burma in the late afternoon that I realised that the real story was to be found on the Chinese side of the border.

At the market in Mong La, a Noah's ark of endangered animal products can be bought, including tiger skins, thick chunks of elephant hide and tusks, pangolin scales, clouded leopard pelts, flying squirrels, masked palmed civet cat, Asiatic moon bear skins, and Tibetan antelope skulls.

For example a tiger skin for sale in Mong La can be bought for around RMB50,000 (£4,700). But over the border in China, that same skin can fetch upwards of RMB200,000 (£18,900).

Many of those same items were also available in the Chinese border town of Daluo, but marked up significantly.

The illegal wildlife trade in Burma is nothing new.

For decades, NGOs and governments have known the Burmese border regions with China are a problem area.

[Elephant hide.]

[Pangolin scales.]

[Masked palm civet, sold as bushmeat.]

[A giant flying squirrel and green pigeons. Both endangered.]

[Flying squirrel.]

[Ivory for sale.]

[Blocks of ivory for sale as investment.]

[Tiger claws made of ivory, with Burmese and Thai currency notes.]

[A general view of the town of Mong La.]

[Asiatic black bear, with clouded leaopard cat.]

[A monkey for sale as a menu item at a wildlife restaurant in Mong La.]


Illegal Wildlife Trade in Daluo, Yunnan Province, China 

DALUO, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA - What's not known, however, is how a thriving illegal market in the body parts of critically endangered species for Chinese medicine can flourish within just a few metres from China's official border crossing with Burma – on the Chinese side.

[Tourist guides offer tours of the "Golden Triangle Scenic Area", just in front of the Chinese border post at Daluo.]

[Pangolin scales.]

The inconvenience and risk of getting to Mong La has prompted this parallel market in illegal wildlife trade products to spring up, catering to disappointed tourists who may feel comfortable buying illegal wildlife products, but are averse to evading the China government's formalities of immigration and customs checks.

[Fake tiger claw, bear gall bladder and sex pills.]

The Chinese government has for decades has been a friend and ally of the ethnic militias along its Burmese border.

But since the opening up of Burma, and the arrival of a more open government, China's traditional support for those militias has waned, and so now China is supporting the official Burmese government in Naypiydaw.

[Fake tiger paw.]

[Bear bile, bear gall bladder (top) and elephant skin for sale in Daluo.]

This shift has seen Mong La dropped from the list of designated tourist destinations approved by the tourism bureau of the Chinese province that borders Burma, Yunnan.

Consequently, disappointed tourists headed to Mong La are being turned back at the border, and instead some of them make do with the market in Daluo to buy their illegal wildlife products.

[Slow loris feet key rings.]

One trader in Daluo, who refused to give her name, said: “If the police come, we just hide these things.

As long as [these illegal wildlife parts] are not on public view it is OK. We just put it all back out for sale when the police have gone.”



Ivory Destruction In The United States, And Why Crushing Is Not Enough...

Back in June I was in Manila, Philippines, photographing the wildlife authorities there crush and burn five tons of ivory.

Last week I was in Denver, Colorado, observing the United States do exactly the same, except that this time they only crushed the ivory, but didn't burn it.

I think this was a big mistake.

Incineration is a final step to remove any lingering doubts that the crushed ivory will ever be returned to the market.

Once in full force, the crushing machine looked like a ivory waterfall.

Federal cops guarded the stockpile at dawn before it was destroyed.

This US Fish & Wildlife Service officer carried a tusk like it was his own baby. Compassion for a dead elephant, perhaps?

African 'art' curios.

Ivory trinkets and tusks await their fate next to the crusher in the background.

US Fish & Wildlife Service officials place the tusks in an elaborate pyramid prior to crushing.

The tusk pile and the crusher.

Offloading from a flatbed truck, a big perspex box full of small ivory trinkets and jewellery such as bracelets and necklaces.

Much of this ivory jewellery was seized from US tourists returning home from abroad with illegal ivory.

The United Nations of Trinkets; Asia, Africa and the Middle East in one image.

A Chinese Guanyin statue in a cardboard box, missing her head.

A tacky Japanese ivory Geisha doll.

Made in bloody Hong Kong, unfortunately.

According to estimates, 30,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks.

Ivory gravel being shovelled by wildlife officials.

The ivory gravel will be used for 'education' purposes under the CITES agreement. And now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will inherit the headache of secure storage from US Fish & Wildlife. The Zoos and aquariums have been instructed to make 'monuments' for elephant conservation education. Call me cynical, but I'm sure they will be seeing an upsurge Chinese mainland tourists (many of them armed with small pen knives or chisels in their pockets) come through their gates once these monuments to long deceased elephants are open to the public.

A wildlife official points out the problem in Congo, with a forest elephant tusk.

Crushed ivory.

A close up of crushed ivory.

A big piece of crushed ivory.

And finally, a couple of photos from Hong Kong. Taken at Star Company on Hollywood Road, by the escalator, to be precise.

These pairs of earrings made from so-called pre 1989 (ie pre-ban) ivory are tiny and worth around US$50 (the floral studs) and US$60 (the small elephants) respectively.

Just saying...!


Ivory Destruction In Manila.

Today I was at a Philippines government event to destroy five tonnes of confiscated ivory.

People here are calling it the 'Big Crush'.

They used an excavator to crush the elephant tusks.

And a steam roller too.

Bits large and small were flying around all over the place, and I seriously almost got hit in the head by a flying tusk!

No one was wearing safety equipment. No hard hats or goggles in sight.

The five tonnes of ivory was taken from the confiscated ivory that had been smuggled into the Philippines from Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania.

The Philippines is a large ivory-consuming country in its own right, as well as a major smuggling transit point for ivory on its way to China.

Under the terms of the United Nations C.I.T.E.S. (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement, the ivory has to be 'put beyond use' if it is not to be kept in storage or used for conservation or education purposes.

It was certainly 'put beyond use' today.

The initiative was organised by the 'Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau' (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) of the Philippines government.

I just wish the Hong Kong government would do the right thing by the elephants, and follow the Philippines example in burning their ivory stockpile.

No one knows for sure, (and that's part of the problem), but some estimates point to them sitting on 20+ tonnes - all which I belive must be burnt too.


I won the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) photojournalism competition!

Years of hard work paid off this week.

Usually I don't enter competitions, but this year I decided to. And so it happened that I actually won another one!

This time an Award for Excellence in the 'Environment (Nature, Wildlife) Picture Story' category of the 'Best of Photojournalism' competition held by the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA. The NPPA is the United States' most respected association for visual journalists (photojournalists, TV news cameramen/women, editors etc). The award was for a set of overfishing images. (Click SEE MORE under the underwater image to bring up the slideshow).

Most of the pictures were taken by me on assignment for Greenpeace International, but a couple towards the end of the slideshow were taken on assignment for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), or on freelance assignments in Asia.

The images highlight the industrial barbarity of the fishing industry that is wiping out the tunas and the sharks from our oceans...


My 'Compressor Diver/Overfishing' Image Wins Best Feature Award In FCCT/OnAsia Photo Contest!

What a great start to the week. I just got word that I won a photo contest with this picture:-

It won the Best Photo Feature award in the annual Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) and OnAsia Photo Contest.

I feel really honoured since the the contest this year attracted submissions from more than 375 photographers around the world with over 6,000 images. You can see a gallery of the some the fantastic images by the great photographers that I was up against, here.

The winning photo was taken on assignment with Greenpeace International (GPI). A full set of images that this single image was taken from can be viewed on the GPI Facebook page, here.


Shark Finning In Taiwan

Here's a set of shark fin images from Taiwan, that I've not had the chance to give the proper airing that they deserve.

I've been meaning to get these photos out, before they get too old.

Welcome to DongGang fish market, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

These images were taken on assignment with Greenpeace International as a part of their East Asia oceans campaign.

Often times, when I mention the shark fin trade in Taiwan people ask me, "But what about the 'fins-attached' policy?"

I tell them that on the day that I went there, and these photos were taken on 04 November 2012, I didn't see much of that, to be honest.

But here's one picture that does show a bit of that policy in action.

Note the mono-filament plastic fishing line that is binding the 'log' to the fins.

On the whole I saw mostly unattached fins.

I certainly didn't see a single inspector from the Taiwan Fisheries Agency.

But to be fair, here's an image I took on a Taiwanese longliner in 2011 that shows a frozen oceanic whitetip shark with it's fins attached to prove that it does actually go on. But to what extent, I don't know. For the record, this species is newly-protected by CITES.

Unloading 'logs'.

Thresher shark fins being bagged up.

Finally, a poor hammerhead shark that has had his cephalofoils, or hammers, sliced off.


Sorry. Not very uplifting for a Friday afternoon, I do apologise.

Have a great, shark-free, weekend...


Hong Kong Children Stage Elephant Ivory Conservation Event

It seems last week's ivory seizure in Hong Kong, roused some indignation in the city's kids.

I wonder if these kids will ever be lucky enough to see an elephant in the wild like I have?

I hope so. But I doubt it if elephant poaching continues at current rates.

It's not just the sharks that need our help.

Please check the IFAW blog for more information on how we can help the elephants too.


Yesterday Sharks, Today Elephants... When Will The Killing Stop?

This is getting more than depressing.

Yesterday I was on a rooftop surrounded by the body parts of between 1,000 to 4,000 sharks.

Today I am in a customs facilty facing at the tusks of around 100 to 200 elephants.

We live in sick and twisted times. Between the corrupt Africans behind this, and the ignorant Chinese elite who by the stuff, we have marriage made in hell. A really big problem.

Below is my photo caption...

HONG KONG - 779 seized ivory tusks are seen laid out on the floor at a Hong Kong Government Customs and Excise facility in Tsing Yi, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China, 04 January 2013.

Hong Kong customs officers seized 03 January 2013 a total of 779 elephant tusks weighing 1,300 kilograms and worth roughly one million euro.

The tusks were hidden in a container of "architectural stones" arriving in Hong Kong from Kenya in Africa.

It is believed that the ivory was bound for mainland China where an increasingly affluent middle class is driving the trade in illegally-sourced endangered elephant ivory.

The tusks are usually carved into elaborate ornaments, figurines or into chopsticks for the wealthy elite.

Conservationists believe that the trade is thriving because it is the third such bust Hong Kong customs officers have made in as many months.

I asked a question at the press conference.

I asked an endangered species protection officer from the Hong Kong Agricultural and Fisheries and Conservation Department if there were any plans for the government to burn their stockpiles as a kind of publicity stunt, but also to ensure that none of the seized ivory would find it's way back onto the black market.

They said they had no plans to do so, but may consider it.

Let's hope so.


Hong Kong Shark Fin Roof Top - Day Three

Today there were less fins than yesterday. But the amount was still staggering.

Guestimate? 9,500 fins (mainly dorsal fins) from around 1,000 sharks.

We found two Chinese mainlanders from Guangzhou working there. Illegal workers breaching their conditions of stay?

There are illegal structures too. For drying the fins.

The building management, security and staff seem friendly enough, if just a little exasperated with all the attention!

Seems like every media organisation in town has paid this roof top a visit.

It's a public area, after all.

I met a worker from a unit on the 20/F, and some guys on the 18/F, all of whom said they are disgusted by the shark fin trade.

It's just a small minority who are the environmental criminals.

I'm now of the opinion that this place has been operating for a very long time, and it's only in the last three days that their activities have come to light.

Rhinos, elephants, tigers. Now sharks. When will it ever end?

I feel disgusted with humanity. These shark fins belong in the ocean, not the rooftop of an industrial building.


Hong Kong Shark Fin Roof Top - Day Two

I went back to the scene of a shark fin environmental catastrophe today.

We estimated 30,000 fins from around 4,000 sharks.

These images were take at Kwong Ga Factory Building, 64 Victoria Road, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong.


All images and text © Alex Hofford / Image Solutions Ltd. 2011 | Web design in Hong Kong by Ugli © 2011