Market: Exposing Asia’s Illegal Animal Trade
The Satya Interview with
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.