Dec 18, 2010

Where Dead Tigers Come From

 I don’t know what I was doing when Puan found me. Maybe I was looking at the village swing or kicking the dirt or studying the social habits of chickens. Puan had something to show me but wasn’t giving me any hints as to what had him so excited

It was a poorly preserved cat skin on a bench at the the school house. What type of critter was anyone’s guess. Markings like a leopard cat, but too large, and not at all like a true leopard. The translation from Akha to Lue to Lao to English was losing quite a bit of info if there was ever any there to begin with. Small leopard was about as close as I heard with variations of mao (cat) and sua (tiger) thrown in to the confuse the issue.
I don’t think the cat was killed for the wildlife trade, more likely as proof of some hunter’s prowess. The village of Lao Sueng is not only a long way from any roads but also in an area where the Lao Government prosecutes the trade in wildlife. The villagers were unconcerned that I was taking photos of a cat skin and Puan has known me for years.

At the time I didn’t realize it but over the next couple of weeks I’d be skirting the edges of what is now the center of the international trade in tigers, leopards and other endangered species.

Tiger head and skin for sale at Mong La the border town up in Sipsongbana (twelve villages in the Dai language) I had no idea that taxidermy was this advanced in the Shan State. Someone must have sent away for a mold for a leopard as well as teeth tongue and nose.
In the early 90s I  befriended an ethnic Chinese from New York city who used to go to Mong La regularly to purchase gem stones to take home to his uncles jewelery business in NY. I think he used to bring in the gems informally. (hidden very discreetly) He would wait on the Chinese side for the traders to come over to sell, he made a trip to Mong La every two months. I think I was the only fellow American he bumped into on his trips, it was when I lived in Dali. Even back then Mong La had a reputation of allowing things that were often frowned upon in the more Puritanical Peoples Republic.

I’m an agnostic on the hunting of cats in the land of other peoples. Not my land, not my people. I will say the upland peoples have been hunting the same cats using the same firearms (black powder muzzle loaders) for hundreds of years. It's not them who have changed.

I remember a long time ago, in my own country once I got kind of a bad feeling when I saw the skins of a few bobcats stretched out on racks for drying in the back of someone’s pickup in Utah, it just struck me the wrong way for whatever reason. Cats are an interesting family of animals. They never seem to seriously overpopulate and they spread themselves out through being territorial. In general they don’t eat carrion. I like seeing the tracks of a mountain lion despite the fact that they probably eat a deer a week. Cats hunt by stealth, so do us humans sometimes.

I thought of writing when I saw this article on the website of Radio Free Asia.

Burma up in that part of the world isn’t under the control of, well, Burma. People call it Shan State, and has been fighting Burma since forever. The Mekong separates Burma from Laos and the river is very narrow and turbulent. A metaphor perhaps. I know that other foreigners travel in the area but I’ve never seen any. The only boats I’ve seen are Chinese freighters, local shallow bottomed Lao freight boats, the fast boats I’ve ridden and once an overpowered sleek Chinese passenger cruiser.

Looking north from the landing at Xiengkok. I don’t think the barely visible bamboo pier sticking out into the eddy created by the calving of that sandbar is a pier for offloading to Keng Larb. My map from Reise puts the town 15km upriver.

The Radio Free Asia (RFA) article is taken from a report from TRAFFIC an org that monitors trade in species. There are some gems such as this one.

The extreme decentralization of northern Burma "makes the situation more difficult to monitor and control,"  Translation: There is no government and no way any of us are going there.

Another one, “Mong La and Tachilek are areas in the Shan State of northern Burma, where rebels are waging a battle for greater autonomy against the junta.” Greater autonomy translates into not having their village razed to the ground and every living thing in it killed. There are no reporters or observers to bring word of the conflict to the outside world, it just happens.

The article goes on to claim Keng Larb in Burma is the new exit point for the trade. The mention of that town is what perked up my ears. So I looked at the map. Sure enough right where that birds beak type thing sticks into Laos. The bird beak is a big old turn of the Mekong, at the tip of the beak is the tiny port of Xiengkok, Laos. That’s where the Long river enters the Mekong. The river and the ledge jutting from the hill, form a slack water big enough for boats to pull out of the current and moor. Any place the river slows down enough to actually allow a boat to stop is a real big deal on the upper Mekong. There’s a customs house. 

Lao freight boat firing up it’s engines as it enters the fast water at Xiengkok. We all watched the boat silently swing out into the current without power waiting to see what the heck was going on. The captain hadn’t started the engine so to save a couple precious drops of fuel. The engine coughed a couple of times then caught and blew out this tiny cloud of smoke. Without power a boat would be dashed on the rocks within seconds of entering the rapids. The Chinese blasted a channel a few years ago but there is still a tremendous amount of water trying to squeeze through a very narrow passage.

Xiengkok is the place the backpacker Ryan Chicovsky disappeared under unusual circumstances four and a half years ago. If anyone reading this travels to that  area, and hears anything about Ryan please contact his family as they are still seeking word of him.

I can see how the trade in tiger parts would find the Mekong along the Burma Lao border a good place to exit Burma. There is no law in Burma, the only outpost of the Lao government is the lone, very boring, customs house in Xiengkok a town known for being perhaps less regulated than the rest of Laos. The dirt road from Xienkok up to Sing and the local border crossing with China has no checkpoints before the border itself. At the border both times I’ve been there everyone has been playing dakaw that kind of cross between volley ball and soccer played with a hard wicker ball. It’s not a border for international travelers.

Further down the Mekong where Burma meats the Thai border is the town of Huay Xai with it’s hard surface road where in four hours you can drive to the big casino at Boten. The Chinese casino that is built on 25km of Laos with a 30 year lease and an option for  60 more. It would be very hard to tell where Laos ends and China begins. I saw an article recently with photos of tiger kits for sale there but I can’t seem to find it anymore.
Finally there is the possibility of going straight up the Mekong is China, with no Lao checkpoints at all. Those 3 possible routes out of Keng Lap, all very loosely regulated, offer inexpensive, quick passage to China for the wildlife trade, far away from developed towns.

An example of howe "out there" this stretch of river is, a few years ago a fast boat got shot up and a Chinese army guy killed. Something to do with the Chinese casino in Tachilek not paying it’s protection money. What a Chinese army guy was doing all that way down the river so far from the border of China just goes to show the confluence of corrupt officials, lack of any kind of government, and competing illegal enterprises.

Huay Xai is also the first place one ends up that has internet, electricity, hot water, and all the trappings of modernity. While walking down the main street I saw a store selling curios from the forest. Boar tusks, porcupine quills, exotic looking crystals, and such. Lying on the floor was this very beautiful skin from a marbled leopard.

I asked the young lady minding the store if the owner was there. He still wasn’t there an hour later and I politely asked permission to take the photo.

1 comment:

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