Traded to Extinction: Portraits of Poaching in Asia

3 minute read

Most people hear the term “poaching,” and they think of hunters gunning down endangered species like elephants and rhinos on the plains of Africa. But in many ways the heart of the illegal wildlife trade is not in Africa, but in Asia. It’s in rising countries like China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia where the demand for illegal wildlife products is strongest, driving the hunting and the trafficking. And it’s in Asia where poaching is still going on in the forests of countries like Burma and Laos, in the last scraps of wilderness in one of the most densely populated parts of the world. Every year it’s estimated that up to 30,000 primates, 5 million birds, 10 million reptile skins and 500 million tropical fish are bought and sold in Asia.

That bloody trade is revealed by Patrick Brown’s stark black-and-white photographs, published in his new book, Trading to Extinction. The Bangkok-based Brown spent more than 10 years documenting the underbelly of the illegal wildlife trade in Asia, from ill-equipped rangers patrolling the forests of Thailand to markets in southern China, jam-packed with threatened species. He shows the shadowy smuggling routes that take wildlife products across poorly guarded borders, and shines a spotlight on the sheer inhumanity of man’s treatment of majestic animals like the endangered Indochinese tiger. Brown prowls the markets of Bangkok, where massive ivory elephant tusks—almost surely taken by a poacher—sit in a store window, mute symbols of a murderous trade. Another photograph shows a pile of tiger and snow leopard skins—worth three-quarters of a million dollars—seized in Thailand’s Chitwan National Park.

Money is what drives the illegal wildlife trade, which is now worth as much as $10 billion globally. Brown notes that a poacher who kills a rhino and removes its horn in India gets $350, but that same horn will sell for $1,000 in a nearby market town, and as much as $370,000 once it reaches dealers in Hong Kong, Beijing or the Middle East. It’s little wonder that international criminal syndicates have gotten into the wildlife trade, which is now estimated to be the fifth most lucrative illegal enterprise in the world. Some of that money flows to international terrorists as well, making wildlife trafficking a security threat, as well as a conservation one.

The good news is that the world is beginning to get serious about wildlife trafficking. On Feb. 11 the U.S. announced a new national strategy for combating poaching, as well as a ban on commercial imports and exports of ivory. Last week British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, the highest-level summit ever on wildlife trafficking. Bringing a halt to poaching will require a commitment from developed nations like the U.S. and England. But as Patrick Brown’s moving photographs show, the battle will be fought in Asia.

Patrick Brown is a multi award-winning English photographer based in Thailand. His work focuses on critical issues across the Asia region. Trading to Extinction is available through publisher Dewi Lewis.

Bryan Walsh is a senior editor for TIME International & an environmental writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryanrwalsh.

The following images, taken between 2002 and 2012, are from Patrick Brown's new book "Trading to Extinction." Nepal: A group of Royal Forestry Department officers display seized tiger and snow leopard skins at the barracks of Chitwan National Park. The 5 year old stockpile has an estimated value of $750,000 USD.Patrick Brown—Panos
Bangkok, Thailand Journalists are invited to photograph a shipment of pangolins intercepted at Bangkok's international airport as part of a crackdown on trafficking in wild animals. Pangolins are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia and prized for their use in traditional medicine and as an aphrodisiac.Patrick Brown—Panos
Bangkok, Thailand Shop assistants arrange an ivory elephant tusk in the window of an antique shop. The tusk is so big it takes two men to lift it.Patrick Brown—Panos
Trading to Extinction-Book
Lệ Mật, Vietnam A waiter carries a tray of snake blood to a group of tourists. The village is renowned for its snake catchers and restaurants. Patrick Brown—Panos
Thakhilek, Burma Tiger skulls, monkey skulls, deer horn and other wildlife products are for sale in a shop along the Thai-Burmese border. The town is a center for the sale and smuggling of poached animals, skins and parts.Patrick Brown—Panos
Pattaya, Thailand A young tiger, one of the sideshow attractions for tourists visiting Sriracha Zoo, rests in the midday heat. Visitors can pay to have their photos taken with the animal under the supervision of its handlers.Patrick Brown—Panos
Rangoon, Burma An agitated bear climbs the iron bars of its cage in Rangoon Zoo.Patrick Brown—Panos
Nepal A small group of Royal Nepalese soldiers riding elephants patrol Chitwan National Park at dawn.Patrick Brown—Panos
Nepal One of the main smuggling routes for poached animals from India is on the far western border of Nepal, marked here by a rope hanging across the road.Patrick Brown—Panos
Bokor, Cambodia An armed member of the National Cambodian Forestry Department patrols the Sre Ambel delta region in Bokor National Park, as part of the drive to stop the trade of wildlife that takes place between the hills and the lowlands.Patrick Brown—Panos
Nepal Poachers sit in a military jail, having been arrested for poaching in Chitwan National Park. They will spend the next twenty years incarcerated.Patrick Brown—Panos
Trading to Extinction-Book
Guangzhou, China A man walks over a pile of live tortoises at the Qingping Medicine Market.Patrick Brown—Panos
Bangkok, Thailand A pangolin (scaly anteater) that was intercepted with hundreds of others at Bangkok International Airport as part of a crackdown on the black market trafficking in wild animals. A customs official reported that the 102 boxes of pangolin were marked as containing turtles. Pangolins are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia and prized for their use in both traditional medicine and as an aphrodisiac.Patrick Brown—Panos
Phan Thiet, Vietnam A stuffed tiger is on display in a Chinese medicine shop.Patrick Brown—Panos
Trading to Extinction-Book
Guangdong, China A crocodile lies in its cage at a zoo.Patrick Brown—Panos
Bharatpur, Nepal An officer from the Royal Forestry Department holds the skull of a rhino while other park rangers display animal skins seized from poachers in the Royal Chitwan National Park. The park's five-year-old stockpile of seized animal products has an estimated value of $750,000 US dollars.Patrick Brown—Panos
Bokor, Cambodia A handcuffed poacher is photographed with a notice bearing details of his name, age and the nature and date of his crime. While operating as part of a poaching team in Bokor National Park, he was brought for questioning by members of the National Cambodian Forestry Security service.Patrick Brown—Panos

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