From ivory and rhino horn to bear and tiger farms to shark fins and manta ray gill plates, Asian countries have a lot to answer for when it comes to animal cruelty and the systematic destruction of vulnerable species.

The economic growth of certain segments of society in several Asian nations is fueling a boom in what was once the exclusive domain of a financial elite. This new wealth is facilitating a mass marketization of products that are either ostentatious status symbols such as tiger skin rugs and ivory trinkets alongside desperate and/or misinformed attempts at healthcare.

Carcass of a poached rhino in Zimbabwe, pic: Sokwanele - Zimbabwe (Flickr CC)

The fact that ancient folk medicine in one corner of the world has become the driving force in the extinction of megafauna on a separate continent is as maddening as it is baffling. Yet this is what happens when the pursuit of wealth takes precedence over real efforts to improve quality of life through education and the sustainable management of resources. Whether we’re talking about the legal farming of endangered species like tigers and sun bears, for the purported (but easily discredited) medicinal effects of their bones, gall bladders and penises or the South African policies which still allow for trophy hunting, what is strictly legal or illegal is not always the issue.

A Chinese hunter can shoot rhinoceros in South Africa, legally bring their horns back to China as trophies and then easily sell them on the black market. Similarly, the legal farming of tigers in China and elephants in Thailand clouds the trade in parts from poached animals. These loopholes not only confuse consumers (or provide them with convenient excuses), but they make the policing of poachers, smugglers and dealers that much more difficult.

Of the recently named “gang of eight” nations singled out at the CITES meetings in Bangkok, five are in Asia: Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Thailand. The gang of eight are the main players in the illegal international ivory trade, with the remaining being African source nations: Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The Asian players are divided into the main countries where ivory is laundered and smuggled – Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines – and the principle end buyers – China and Thailand.

Rescued elephant, Thailand, pic: Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire

The host nation of CITES, Thailand, has now promised to ban its trade in domestic ivory. But will this have an effect on the illegal trade? Possibly. At least sellers will no longer be able to pass off African ivory as a legal domestic product. China, on the other hand has a history of saying promising things about conservation and then quietly letting the lucrative trade in endangered animal parts continue. See “real tiger wine”.

And it doesn’t stop with the previously named African nations or animal species for that matter. A baffling demand for shark fins and manta ray gill plates is rapidly wiping out the species in Mozambique. Deals between corrupt politicians in Mozambique and Chinese businesses have resulted in a massive illegal industry of timber smuggling at a huge cost in lost tax revenue to the poor African nation.

So what are Asian countries – the chief players in the trade of endangered species – doing to curb their “appetite for destruction”? Well, beside Thailand stopping domestic ivory, China has come out in strong support of turtle conservation. Could this be because they are now a net importer of turtles instead of an exporter? It seems too much is focussed on raw economics, if you ask me. Incredibly cruel practices like bear bile extraction and fur farming need to be stopped regardless of how endangered the species in question are. We know cats and dogs are not vulnerable, but that’s no excuse to permit them being skinned alive. This is not just a question of sustainability or trade regulation. It’s a moral question.

In conclusion, it is not my intention to pick on or single out Asia. This is a global trade. But although animal cruelty, greed and environmental destruction are taking place in all corners of the world, the main drivers in the case of the endangered wildlife trade are located in East and Southeast Asia. One can’t just blame poachers in India or Africa, who are often poor and resort to the dangerous and risky business through desperation. The blame lies more squarely on out-dated customs that value products obtained destructively and cruelly, the international capitalist system that facilitates and increases demand, and the politicians who turn a blind eye or benefit – directly and indirectly – from the trade.

Sun bear bile extraction in Myanmar, pic: Dan Bennett (Flickr CC)