WWF report says online wildlife trade is increasing in Myanmar

By ELAINE KURTENBACH, AP Business Writer

BANGKOK (AP) — A report from the World Wide Fund for Nature shows that illegal online wildlife purchases are on the rise in Myanmar, posing a threat to both public health and endangered species.

The report released Friday found that enforcement of bans on such transactions has weakened amid political turmoil following a 2021 military takeover.

The number of such transactions increased 74% over the previous year to 11,046, almost all related to the sale of live animals. Of the 173 traded species, 54 are threatened with global extinction, according to the report.

The researchers identified 639 Facebook accounts belonging to wildlife dealers. The largest online trade group had more than 19,000 members and dozens of posts a week, she said.

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Animals bought and sold included elephants, bears and gibbons, Tibetan antelopes, critically endangered pangolins and an Asian giant tortoise. The most popular were various species of monkeys, often purchased as pets.

Most of the animals advertised for sale were taken from the wild. They also included civets, which along with pangolins have been identified as potential vectors in the spread of diseases such as SARS and COVID-19.

Shaun Martin, who heads WWF’s Asia-Pacific regional cybercrime project, said monitoring of the online wildlife trade shows that different species are kept together, sometimes in the same cage.

“With Asia’s track record as a breeding ground for many recent zoonotic diseases, this sharp uptick in online wildlife trade in Myanmar is extremely worrying,” he said.

Unregulated wildlife trade and resulting wildlife-human interactions increase the risks of novel and possibly vaccine-resistant mutations of diseases such as COVID-19 that could evolve undetected in non-human hosts into more severe variants. dangerous forms of the disease, experts say. tell.

COVID-19 is one of many diseases that can be traced back to animals. The killing and sale of what is known as bushmeat in Africa was thought to be a source of Ebola. Bird flu probably originated from chickens in a Hong Kong market in 1997. Measles is believed to have evolved from a virus that infected cattle.

“Illegal wildlife trade is a serious concern from the point of view of biodiversity preservation and conservation and its potential impact on health security,” said Mary Elizabeth G. Miranda, an expert in zoonotic diseases and diseases and Executive Director of the Field Epidemiology Training Program. Foundation in the Philippines.

Social media and other online platforms have joined a global effort to crack down on the thriving trade in birds, reptiles, mammals and animal parts. In Myanmar, much of the wildlife trade is done through Facebook, which, as a member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, has taken steps to block or remove accounts of people involved in this type of trade. transactions.

But as is the case elsewhere, new accounts often pop up as soon as old ones are closed, making enforcement difficult, the report noted. Easy online access to animals is also increasing demand, making the problem worse.

Discussions about purchases of protected species often took place in open Facebook groups, suggesting that such transactions remain “largely risk-free,” according to the report. Since payments and deliveries are often made via messaging apps, controlling the problem is doubly difficult.

Highlighting the lack of enforcement, people involved in the illegal wildlife trade in Myanmar often use rudimentary methods to move animals and animal products, with buses being the usual form of transport.

WWF’s study in Myanmar focused on online trade in animals and other creatures within the country, although there were some imports from neighboring Thailand, mainly of birds such as hornbills and salmon-crested cockatoos, and of crocodiles, to India. .

Some offers could involve shipping animals or parts to China, he said.

The conservation group said it plans future studies to better understand Myanmar’s role in the global trade in endangered species.

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