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May 2005
Black Market: Exposing Asia’s Illegal Animal Trade
The Satya Interview with Patrick Brown

 

Patrick Brown
Inside a Nepalese military jail. These poachers will spend the next 20 years jailed in this room, with only 15 minutes outdoor exercise per day. They were arrested in Chitwan National Park for poaching activities. Photo courtesy of Panos Pictures
Patrick Brown
A shop selling wildlife products in the Thai-Burma border town of Mai Sai / Thakhilek. The town is a staging post for the
smuggling of poached animals. Photo courtesy of Panos Pictures
Patrick Brown
At Scotland Yard’s animal protection unit, a police officer displays a tiger’s head seized during a raid in London. Photo courtesy of Panos Pictures

There’s the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Yet in some cases, a photograph can be worth a thousand lives. This is true of many of the images taken by photographer Patrick Brown. Brown’s work documents the little known multi-billion dollar trade in Asia’s endangered species. No one knows exactly how many animals are involved, but experts estimate roughly 25-30,000 primates, 2.5 million birds, 10 million reptile skins and 500 million tropical fish are exported by wildlife traders each year.

Based in Thailand, Australian-born Brown has traveled to remote areas, including Cambodia, Burma, Nepal, India and Vietnam to research and photograph the different aspects of this industry. His stark black and white images speak of the thousands of human lives and millions of animals caught in the trade: a selection of wares available for sale in a market; on patrol with rangers who protect the animals of India’s national parks; three small-time poachers living out their 20 year sentences in a tiny Nepalese jail cell; a freshly seized tiger head at Scotland Yard’s animal protection unit in London; a tranquilized bear having its bile removed at a Vietnamese farm.

For his work documenting the animal trade, Patrick Brown has been recognized by the prestigious World Press Photo competition and awarded a 3P Foundation grant to continue the project. Brown’s photos will soon be available to people in the U.S. as they are featured in a groundbreaking new book by journalist Ben Davies, Black Market: Inside the Endangered Species Trade in Asia, ($29.95) released this month by Earth Aware Editions. With a forward by Jane Goodall, this exposé of the Asian animal trade is chock-full of startling images and statistics and is sure to boggle minds and educate readers.

In between his travels, Catherine Clyne had a chance to talk with Patrick Brownabout his work documenting the besieged animal populations of Asia.

How did you first become interested in the illegal animal trade?
A friend of mine, Adam Oswell, was working on a book project about the animal trade, which he wasn’t able to complete. So he talked to me about taking over the photography element of it, and that’s how I first got involved. I knew it was always there—just living in Asia you can see it quite rapidly growing. But I didn’t really know the extent of the problem. And then I got involved and saw how immense the problem is. From thereon, I just submerged myself in it and I haven’t looked back since.

How long have you been photographing the animal trade?
I’ve been working on it now for close to two and a half years. A lot of that time is not taking pictures, sadly, but spent negotiating with government departments or researching. There isn’t much research on this subject, especially in Asia—in Africa there’s a lot of course, but in Asia there’s very little. When you go to these locations, you are on sort of a wing and a prayer that something is going to happen; and a majority of the time, something does, because it is so prevalent. It’s not as discrete as it is in Africa. It’s very open.

What are some of the different aspects of the illegal animal trade you’ve photographed and researched? I looked at some of your photos, and you’ve been all over the place. For example, you photographed Scotland Yard’s animal protection unit in London. What’s the story behind that?
There are mainly four areas of the animal trade that I’ve photographed. One is the harvesting area, the stockpiles. Then there’s the trafficking route. Then there’s the dealers. And then you have the market. You get into sub-brackets of course—the species and geographical locations and reasons.

With Scotland Yard we wanted to try and show what’s happening in the developed nations to try and stop this. Scotland Yard is [one of] the biggest employers in all of Europe, with something like [30,000] employees. And at any one time [thousands of shipping] containers are going through London. And you have one person—not even a police officer, a civilian—who is employed by Scotland Yard to enforce this. Here we are, in one of the most developed nations on the planet, with one person policing this huge area; and he has no authority.

Another downfall in the system is that unless you are a specialist, you don’t know if the species are endangered. For example, out of a shipment of 25 crocodiles, 15 might be endangered; and unless you’re a reptile expert, you have no idea. And London is one of the biggest conduits for the animal trade—it goes into London and then out to the rest of Europe. It’s amazing what’s happening in the developed world because people have a lot more disposable income than they had 10, 15 years ago. People want to be individuals, so they want to buy something that is pretty whacky, hence the tiger skin.

In your literature about this project you’ve commented: “The wildlife trafficking business is huge, but only the ignorant and often desperate poachers get caught... But the big boys, the wealthy traders in control, never get busted.” From your experience, can you expand on this a little?
I actually feel sorry for the poachers. I empathize with them quite a lot—not with what they are doing but with the situation that they are in. For example, these guys are going to get at the most $250 (U.S.) for a rhino horn. A rhino horn in weight is five times more valuable than gold by the time it gets to Hong Kong or the Middle East, or even to the States or Europe. They are fueling the market, but the poacher is being fueled by other needs—the need to keep a family alive, poverty, etc. This is something that their fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers did—hunt.

Then you have your middleman or trader at the forefront of the stockpiles, the harvesting grounds. This is the man I dislike most of all—I say man because I haven’t come across any research where I’ve found a woman involved—he’s the one that encourages, entices, tells the poachers and their families that there’s nothing to be risked. These are the smooth talking guys; the guys that you can’t get to. They know the risks, they know that if they get photographed or met by a foreigner then their whole cover is blown. They’re the nasty guys and no mud sticks to them, they never get caught. This guy also is in cahoots, usually, with local governments, either on a counsel level or right up to the state government. He is usually in cahoots with them because otherwise he would not be able to survive. On par with that is the government officials, they know what’s happening but they turn a blind eye, because their wallets—or their uncle’s or whoever’s wallets—are getting filled and they let things happen. The salesman in the markets, in Hong Kong, China or Japan, or wherever, he’s just selling a product to demand, it could be mobile phones, he doesn’t really care to be honest.

I was very struck by the photo of the three jailed poachers in Nepal, who will spend 20 years stuck together in a tiny dark cell.
Their sentence is 20 years and they get a 15 minute-a-day break outside. They’re the guys I was telling you about, just trying to make a living. They do know the risks in Nepal, the education system there is very extensive and I’m quite pleased to say they’re very active in educating the communities surrounding the national parks. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to fight this, actually. Education is the key.

And how do you educate people?
It could vary from storyboards at a very young age—they’re doing that in Nepal. Certain groups, either NGOs or rangers, go out to primary schools and such to educate the children—that to kill is actually bad for the environment—and show all of the aspects, even land encroachment problems. It’s very impressive. The problem is the generation gap between father and son is approximately about 15 to 20 years—25 years in Nepal. So you’re going to have 20-25 years before the guys hunting now are too old, and this next generation comes through that possibly won’t hunt. Even though it is working, it’s a very time-consuming process to educate a whole generation. Though it has its pitfalls, it’s better than nothing.

What do you hope to do with your photographs? This seems to be quite a passionate sort of activist project for you.
As a photographer, I’m a storyteller. I want to tell a story the best possible way I can. Also, I want to educate people about what is really happening to the wildlife in Asia and how its depletion is affecting not just local or regional, but the whole world. And the more we are ignorant to it, the more this is going to continue. My ultimate goal is to educate not so much the developed world, but the developing world because this is where it needs to be tackled. For example, my plan would be to maybe go to Nepal and have an exhibition of this work with literature, not in a gallery but in a public area so it shocks as many people as possible and brings them to their senses—hopefully. Even if one less rhino gets killed, at least it might have done something.

In your experience, where are the greatest numbers of animals being poached, and where is the demand coming from? I think that’s something a lot of people in the West don’t really quite understand.
The number one demand above everybody else is China. As a very broad stroke of the brush, they are the biggest consumers of wild animal products. The areas being pilfered is a combination, there’s not just one. It’s more to do with the species than actual area. Indonesia is getting highly, I’m going to use the word raped, the landscape is getting raped. Then you have Laos—there’s not much left there. Burma, Cambodia and Indonesia are the biggest areas with the most wildlife; hence they’re going to be poached the most. Because all the rest—Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Bhutan—have all been poached for over a hundred years, mainly by the Brits, the colonials of course.

As I was preparing for this interview, I thought of you because the BBC did a story this morning on a national park in India, a tiger sanctuary, and they discovered that all the tigers have vanished. I guess it’s been all over the news there and people are kind of in an uproar about it. Did you hear about it?
A friend of mine in India sent me newspaper clippings. [Laughs.] The thing is, for the last three or four years they thought the tigers were there because nobody ever sees them. But someone noticed they hadn’t even seen any tiger droppings lately. Then the researchers did a bit more research and said, ‘Well, there’s not actually any tigers in this national park.’

There’s no pooh!
[Laughter.] There’s no pooh; no trace of them. Even though it’s quite funny in a way, it’s terribly sad. One of the most incredible statistics I have is: between the years 1875 and 1925 at least 80,000 tigers were slaughtered [in India alone]. That’s a 50 year window. Now, there are less than 7,000 wild tigers left in the whole world. The colonials pretty much introduced this. And going back to Scotland Yard, we’re doing nothing about it now. Because the people with the money are in the developed world, their governments need to chuck their backing into this—not just saying this is bad but actually taking some serious action.

What can people in the U.S. do to help?
Well, this is another statistic that is still mind-boggling: there are more tigers in Texas than there are in the Bay of Bengal. Why is that? It’s because people want to be different, to stand out from the crowd: ‘Look at me, I’ve got a pet tiger!’ I mean, this is a really serious ego problem. [Laughs.]

For people in the U.S., I can’t really say because I don’t live there, but be aware that this is happening. The world is being plummeted of what makes this planet tick. So if they see something [like an endangered animal] for sale, don’t buy it. It’s as simple as that. Or notify the local government.

The problem in the U.S. is much of it is actually legal. With tigers, most of them are supposedly captive bred and you can get a license granting the legal right to have a small zoo or menagerie. In some areas of this country, it’s actually easier to own a tiger or lion than it is to adopt a pit bulldog, believe it or not. [Laughs.] Try to wrap your brain around that one!
[Pause.] That’s absolutely amazing, absolutely crazy. There are so many issues and elements to this story. And the one you just [threw out] throws a whole other element into the works, about having to educate people—I mean if it’s easier to get a lion or tiger than it is to get a dog!

It’s actually pretty easy to get a tiger in the U.S. Lions are a bit more rare.

The problem is there’s a loophole in the licensing system. Even though you have paperwork stating that this tiger is domestically bred, unless you take a DNA sample and [compare it to the parents], you have no idea where the tiger came from. A domesticated tiger and a wild tiger look the same. That’s how a lot of these people are getting away with it. Because you can forge the paperwork and suddenly this tiger is clean—it’s just like money laundering, but you’re doing animal laundering. And the animal’s clean and now you can sell it on the open market.

You don’t have to answer this, I’m just curious. But how do you deal with witnessing such carnage firsthand?
[Sighs.] Well, obviously I get very angry, but mainly I get really really frustrated by it. Not with the witnessing part of it because that is just something I have to do to record what I need to record. But the emotion that comes out most of all is the frustration—and when you can see the problem, which is quite easy to solve, but there is this deluge of red tape the people trying to police the situation have to go through to get things done. But the death part of it…I try and just detach myself from it and keep working and make sure I actually record the pictures because it would be a waste to get to these very far out places and then fall apart and not bring it back to show to people who can make a difference. So you have to be a little level-headed I suppose.

What has the response been to this work?
The response in the photographic world has been frankly quite amazing. I’ve never received such a response. It’s been outstanding. It hasn’t reached the general public yet, but will [in May] when the book will be launched. But the response so far has been staggering and I’m really pleased that people are actually standing up and taking notice now. I’m quite humbled by what’s happened.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
The one thing that impresses me the most out of all this is the rangers in the national parks. These guys are on $25 a month at the most—in India they’re on $10 a month. They literally put their lives on the line to protect these animals. They believe that what they are doing is the right thing, to the point where people’s lives are being taken by poachers in gun battles. In the end, they are the unknown soldier. Nobody really knows them and they are fighting a war. It’s not a UN-classified war but it is a form of war. They are fighting it and they are taking casualties—the animals as well as themselves. And hopefully they will win in some form.

To learn more and to view Patrick Brown’s photographs, visit www.panos.co.uk and www.patrickbrownphoto.com. For more on the book Black Market, see www.earthawareeditions.com. Special thanks to Panos Pictures for generous permission to reproduce photos.

 

 


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