During Lunar New Year week, a golden tiger, an elephant and a pangolin (with baby in tow) greeted visitors to the Mandalay Palace in Myanmar, shining regally in the midday sun and reflecting the spotlights around the palace at night.

Photo: Voices for Wildlife

These animals are all species that are endemic to Myanmar, but are threatened by a pernicious illegal trade for their parts. The difference this time was that the animals on display were replicas.

Tiger bone, pangolin scales and elephant skin are falsely believed to have medicinal properties, while other products, such as tiger pelts and teeth, are purchased for the supposed prestige or protection they bring.

And it isn’t only endemic species that are being poached for their parts. Illegal wildlife products from other parts of the world, including ivory from African elephants and pangolin scales and rhino horns from African species, find their way into national and regional markets, or transit through Myanmar on their way to destinations further afield, including China and the rest of Southeast Asia.

With the recent coronavirus thought to have spread from a market that traded in wildlife, ending this trade is critical, both to help preserve biodiversity and in the interest of public health.

Speaking for those without a voice

The Voices for Wildlife coalition was started by WWF Myanmar in 2016 and was launched in response to a rapid and worrying increase in the number of elephants being poached and skinned in Myanmar. It brought together government, conservation organizations, corporate entities, celebrities, the diplomatic sector and the public to unite against the illegal wildlife trade that fuels this kind of poaching.

Awareness-raising activities included a pop-up display of papier-mâché elephants in central Yangon, one of which now holds a Guinness World Record for the largest papier-mâché animal, a music concert and an #EndWildlifeCrime festival. In culmination, the Yangon Regional government announced a regional ban on all wildlife trade, which included ending sales of illegal wildlife products in Bogyoke market and Shwe Dagon pagoda.

Taking the show on the road

After the success of the campaign in Yangon, the Voices for Wildlife partners turned their attention to the trade in Mandalay. The second-largest city in Myanmar, Mandalay is a major trading and transit hub for illegal wildlife products as they make their way up to the Golden Triangle and ultimately to China. Stopping the illegal wildlife trade in Mandalay would have a significant impact on reducing trade nationally and in the Greater Mekong region as a whole.

In coordination with the regional Forest Department, Voices for Wildlife organized an ambitious campaign to work at multiple levels. First, regional government players, especially law-enforcement departments, were engaged to secure their commitment to working toward a Mandalay free of illegal wildlife trade. This includes a collaboration with the Mandalay police, prosecution and forest departments in order to do targeted market investigations and encourage enforcement actions.

The Mandalay government is also committed to sustainable urban development. Making sure the markets of Mandalay are free of illegal wildlife trade and taking a strong stance against wildlife crime can help support Mandalay’s goals of sustainable development and growth, an opportunity that is a win for wildlife and the people of Mandalay. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Mandalay is famous for the parades it throws during Buddhist New Year, with the key float being a Mandalay swan. In order to garner public support for an end to illegal wildlife crime in the city, and to celebrate the government commitments to improved enforcement, Voices for Wildlife and the Forest Department planned Myanmar’s first wildlife street parade.

The parade, which took place on February 1, featured 14 floats including the three golden animals that represent some of the iconic species threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, as well as an entertainment float that hosted performances by pop stars Kyaw Thiha and Mee No, who performed the Breath of the Earth song for excited local audiences.

Traditional performances, including elephant dancers, marionettes, musicians and dancers traveled in the parade, and performed in front of the Mandalay Palace, near Zay Cho Market, and Mahamuni Pagoda. Three floats were made by local civil-society organizations – Second Tap Root, Natural Green Alliance and Kyaukse Technology University Students – one of which featured the Ayeyarwady river dolphin for which Mandalay and the surrounding areas are famous.

The parade route covered a huge swath of the city center, and was able to engage the community at many key locations that are both iconic in Mandalay and also important sites of trade, particularly Zay Cho Market. It connected the many communities that make up this historical capital city, and drew attention to the issue of wildlife crime, garnering support from local Mandalay residents and tourists alike.

During the opening of the parade, the Honorable U Myat Thu, Mandalay regional minister of planning and financial affairs, gave a speech highlighting the importance of the collaboration with Voices for Wildlife and supporting the goal to end wildlife crime in Mandalay and to attract tourists to the region with wildlife being a draw. He supported the ban on illegal wildlife trade in collaboration with the regional authorities. 

Nick Cox, country director for WWF Myanmar, commended the Mandalay government authorities for preserving their natural heritage and the natural heritage of the whole country.

“We thank the national and regional governments for their enlightened stance, for being progressive in banning the illegal wildlife trade and enforcing that ban – something that many other countries in Southeast Asia have yet do,” Cox said. “This ban is the first step to an illegal-wildlife-free Myanmar, and to ensuring thriving wildlife tourism in Myanmar. This ban will ensure that your children and grandchildren grow up in a country blessed with wildlife.”

A Mandalay free of illegal wildlife trade would do a great deal to improve the situation for the wildlife of Southeast Asia and the world. As the golden tiger, pangolin and elephant paraded through town and shone in the sun, the future for their species seemed brighter.

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Mia Signs is the communications manager for WWF-Greater Mekong's work on illegal wildlife trade, as well as for the WWF initiative to Close Asia's Ivory Markets. She is based in Vientiane, Laos.