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Why exotic animal trade grows in Asia

Rising wealth lifts demand for exotic pets and delicacies in Asia. Meanwhile, enforcers are stretched thin.

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The multibillion-dollar exotic animal trade pits underfunded enforcement agencies against poor, rural communities. It has a criminal supply chain that stretches from forests in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines to the dinner tables of Asia's elite in China, Japan, and South Korea. Fanned by widespread corruption, the trade flouts international and local laws protecting endangered species, making crackdowns difficult.

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Markets such as Jatinegara draw swarms of local and foreign buyers despite the efforts of global agencies, including the International Criminal Police Organization, to bust them.

"As soon as these traders see the police, they pack up and leave.... So we are working on doing more undercover operations to shut these places down," says Raffles Panjaitan, Indonesia's director of investigation and forest protection.

Recent crackdowns have discovered tiger parts, rhino horns, and a bear head destined for the Chinese medicine trade.

But Mr. Panjaitan says he needs more resources: He has just 8,400 police covering Indonesia's 510,000 square miles of forest. "Many Indonesians living in or near forests have little income, and poachers persuade them with a little bit of money to hunt protected species," he says. "They usually aren't educated in these areas, and they don't know these animals are endangered or understand conservation."

Conservationists agree that a combination of tighter enforcement and education is critical to finding a lasting solution.

Persuading buyers, and the forest communities who poach for sums far below the amount a creature sells for, of the need to preserve biodiversity is as crucial as punishing them, say environmentalists.

One recent example of such a campaign is Vietnam, where a myth about the cancer-curing effects of rhino horn created a surge in the number of rare rhinos being killed in the region and in their African habitat. In an effort to shift the mind-set there, conservationists worked with the nation's Communist Party to educate the population, tapping into and directly informing wealthy officials and the business contacts who are the main consumers of exotic pets, delicacies, and medicines.

But campaigns often move at a glacial pace, and there are frequent reminders of the size of the conservationists' task.

This month an endangered Sumatran tiger died after it was rescued from a wire trap in an Indonesian jungle with injuries caused by spears and air rifle pellets. There are fewer than 400 of the tigers left.

Says Mr. Compton, "We have to be realistic. The economic imperative for some communities in this region is stronger than the will to protect the environment."

IN PICTURES: White tiger cubs

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