Shwe Ky was very tired after the trip. Ma Saw immediately took him to a veterinarian, who suggested that he provide intensive care to the ailing baby monkey.
Ma Saw is one of many local buyers of wild animals in Myanmar, whose motivations are varied. Their purchases have fueled the illegal online wildlife trade in Myanmar in recent years, as local access to internet and mobile banking has grown significantly.
The political crisis has further hampered environmental regulation and law enforcement. Additionally, the ability to trade anonymously online means people buy and sell with impunity.
Nay Myo Shwe, WWF Myanmar Wildlife Program Manager
Keeping baby monkeys as pets is common among these buyers, with many asking sellers for a specific species in social media groups. Some buy monkeys because they feel sorry for the animals, as was the case with Ma Saw. Others think owning a wild animal is cool and symbolizes their wealth, a trend that has been noticed by social media users in Myanmar.
Social media posts featuring wild monkeys, especially posts showing monkeys being trained as pets, often attract a lot of viewers on TikTok and Facebook, the most popular social media platforms in Myanmar.
Growth of online wildlife trade
Unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade is the second biggest direct threat to species after habitat destruction, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In April, WWF published a study showing that Myanmar’s online illegal wildlife trade inside the country increased by 74% between 2020 and 2021.
The organization registered 11,046 animal products of 173 species for sale online in 2021, an increase from 143 species in 2020. Of these, six species have been listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Seven others were listed as “endangered” and 33 as “vulnerable”.
About 96% of the posts advertised live animals and 87% said the animals had been taken from the wild.
Posts advertising mammals for sale saw the largest increase in numbers, from 169 to 576 between 2020 and 2021, an increase of 241%. The most popular mammals were various species of monkeys, often purchased as pets, according to the WWF report. These included the dusky leaf and Shortridge’s langurs, as well as the pigtailed and northern pigtailed macaques.
Mekong Eye also found offers to sell Popa langurs, a primate species recently discovered exclusively in Myanmar, on Facebook groups. The animals are critically endangered and it is estimated that only 135 mature individuals survive in the wild.
These animals are traded freely in open groups on Facebook, where members can advertise and sell wild animals without facing any legal action.
Many sellers do not use their authenticated accounts, but create new accounts to do business in the wildlife trade. They usually use video calls to communicate with potential buyers, to show the condition of animals.
“Potential buyers usually contact me by direct message on Facebook. They want to know about animal health and whether the monkeys have a ‘friendly demeanor’,” said a Yangon-based vendor, who asked not to be named.
“I offer a cash on delivery option to buyers who can pick up the animals near me. If the buyers live in other cities and towns, the transaction will be done online. The animals will be delivered by public bus.
Interviews with sellers and buyers indicated that baby monkeys are in high demand and can sell out within one to three days of being advertised on social media.
Coup Halts Anti-Wildlife Trade Efforts
On February 1 last year, Myanmar’s military, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup and seized power from the elected National League for Democracy government, turning the country into a Authoritarian state with weakened rule of law.
Since the military coup, local media have reported accelerating exploitation of natural resources, including mining and deforestation.
When it comes to the wildlife trade, hunters have taken advantage of the lack of law enforcement to hunt and trade protected animals, mostly without facing any consequences. The coup also halted Myanmar’s progress in combating the wildlife trade.
Ko Linn – alias – former staff member of Myanmar’s Department of Environment and Wildlife Conservation, said illegal wildlife trade flourished because the post-coup government did not have enough human resources or budget to tackle the problem.
He left the department after working there for 12 years and joined the civil disobedience movement, alongside thousands of government workers, including military, police and civil servants. These former officials resigned from their positions to show their resistance to the new junta government. Many were arrested and detained by the military.
“Before the coup, there were collaborations between government institutions, NGOs, civil society groups and local people to preserve our wildlife, especially those [that are] threatened and endangered like Popa langur and pangolins,” he said. “But all that cooperation has stopped now.”
In the legal sphere, law enforcement on biodiversity conservation and protected areas has been weakened due to a lack of government personnel and a declining rule of law. This law is an upgraded version of the Wildlife Conservation Act 1994, which was amended in 2018 to strengthen conservation efforts with the support of elected government and civil society.
Under the law, wildlife protection has been categorized into three categories based on their endangered status – “completely”, “normally” and “seasonally” protected. Anyone who kills, hunts, possesses or trades fully protected species, or their parts or products, will be sentenced to between three and 10 years in prison, the law specifies.
However, while the law is still in place, enforcement is not. The military junta has turned the justice system into a tool to criminalize dissidents, leaving little room for prosecution of other crimes, including the wildlife trade.
“The political crisis has further hampered environmental regulation and law enforcement. Also, the ability to trade anonymously online means people buy and sell with impunity,” said Nay Myo Shwe, wildlife program manager at WWF Myanmar.
No happy ending for traded animals
“Some people keep wild animals as pets because they think the animals project a superior image of themselves. Many don’t know the wildlife trade is illegal, or know it, but profit from the ‘lack of effective law enforcement,’ said Nay Myo Shwe.
“Primates are intelligent, sensitive and very social animals, which makes [the buyers] fascinated [by their behaviour.] Babies also attract them. But baby primates need their mothers to teach them the skills they need to survive. Depriving primates of contact with their own limbs is extremely cruel and distressing to them.
Contact with wildlife also increases risks to human health, as animals can carry diseases that are fatal to humans. Lessons must be learned from past experience with zoonotic diseases including SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu and Covid-19, warned Nay Myo Shwe.
Ma Saw, the buyer of the baby macaque, wanted to release Shwe Ky into the wild. But she gave up on that idea because she’s sure the monkey wouldn’t survive without learning her mother’s skills.
Shwe Ky was still alive at the time of writing this article. But others may not be so lucky.
Wild animal buyer Ko Khaing Min – alias – bought a two-month-old monkey online in April, simply because “it was cute”.
“She was very vulnerable when I got her. She died of diarrhea after two months of staying with me. It’s better not to raise a wild monkey if you can’t give her intensive care, and that’s expensive” , did he declare.
This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.