By Rhett Butler [A later, fuller version of this article can be found here.\
Deep in the rugged mountains of Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area on the Laos–Vietnam border, Laotian game wardens came upon the following scene: pieces of the pelt of a recently killed tiger, its bones removed, with rifle shells scattered in the trampled vegetation.
The wardens knew precisely what had happened. Poachers had trapped a tiger in a baited snare that had encircled one of its front feet with a cable and lifted the animal into the air. Coming upon the snarling tiger, the poachers had shot it, then proceeded to carve out its 22 to 26 pounds of bones, which — when ground up — would be sold to middlemen for the Chinese medicinal market. The poachers then cut off the tiger’s penis, which would eventually be soaked in wine and the wine drunk as an aphrodisiac.
Middlemen paid the poachers up to $15,000 for the bones and other parts of the tiger, an astronomical sum in a country where per capita income is around $400 a year. In China today, the remains of a tiger may fetch $70,000, with the ground bones highly valued as a cure for rheumatism, according to Arlyne Johnson, co-director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Laos Program, which is trying to stem the flow of the illegal wildlife trade.
Twenty-five years ago, hundreds of tigers roamed large swaths of relatively untouched jungle in Laos. But in recent years — particularly in the last decade — development, deforestation, and a booming traffic in wildlife have reduced Laos’s tiger population to 50 or fewer individuals, according to Johnson and other scientists. The main driver of the rapid depletion of tigers and scores of other species of birds, animals, and reptiles is the growing affluence of neighboring Thailand, Vietnam, and especially China, where a vast new market for wildlife products has arisen.
Nothing symbolizes this market more vividly than the so-called “north-south economic corridor,” a recently completed road that now connects once-sleepy Laos — and its timber and other raw materials — to China. With its booming economy, China is also the world’s largest — and fastest-growing — market for wildlife. More....