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My Friend The Asian Wildlife Poacher

Above: Typical verdant jungles in Shan State, Myanmar (Burma)

My Friend The Asian Wildlife Poacher

In almost every conversation about conservation and extinction of species in biodiverse countries, the voice of one group is consistently left out: that of ordinary, indigenous people living in locations where this environmental degradation is taking place. Below is my own attempt to begin that conversation, by sharing the story of Mr B. and his wife, Mrs C, villagers from the deep countryside in Shan State, Myanmar (Burma). * Considering the current situation with COVID-19 and how that virus likely originated in poached wildlife, I feel that having this conversation is more important than ever. 

Mr B. openly and willingly collects wild orchids (and sometimes other wildlife, too). In modern Southeast Asia, the poaching of orchids stands out in scale and intensity among all plants. In fact, 80% of all CITES listed organisms-plants and animals-are orchids. The trend is so pervasive in the modern day that virtually every town and village in the region has at least one stall specifically selling wild poached orchids. Increasingly, entire ancient jungle trees are being cut down so their branches can be stripped of the orchids which grow on them.  In this sense, orchids are certainly not “just another flower.” 

As is typical in many such cases, these wild collected goods by Mr B. are mostly sold on to poachers and various middlemen. Many inevitably get smuggled across borders and end up being sold outside Myanmar. But-as I hope you will see-the reasons Mr B wild collects is nowhere near as simple as the often touted “if indigenous people didn’t collect wild plants and animals they would starve” narrative. 

Above: The author near Mr B’s village with wild Vanda coerulea, one of the many indigenous orchids in the area

This “starving indigenous people must collect from the wild to survive” line has been repeated so many times in the West that it has become akin to propaganda. In fact, in Myanmar, almost no wild orchid collection took place between 1941 (i.e. start of WWII in the country) and the late 1980s, when the country began to open up to investors from neighbouring countries. By that logic, much of Myanmar’s rural population should have died out in the period, as wildlife poaching today is so extensive. Clearly, this did not happen. Just this fact alone should make us realise that there is more to the story.

It is also striking how few of the people coming to that conclusion have actually spent significant time getting to know these indigenous communities. It is time that we start to look past this very simplistic explanation instead of blindly applying it to every case. I truly believe that the only way we will solve the global issue of poaching and wildlife extinction is by getting to know these communities, their problems and finding ways to empower them. Until that is achieved, it is inevitable that illegal wildlife poaching will continue for a long time.

*Myanmar does not use surnames, and wives do not take any part of their husband’s name upon marriage

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Above: Deep, rich soil that charecterises much of Shan State

Mr B and Mrs C both grew up in a small village in the deep countryside in Shan State. Neither have ever travelled outside Myanmar (Burma). Life was-and still largely is-basic. Washing machines and modern bathrooms are still usually not a feature in local houses, for example. But the soil is deep and fertile, and many crops grow well here. Mr B, like his parents, is a farmer. He grows tea, oranges and other crops, which he sells locally and to other parts of Shan State. For as long as he can remember, farming has been the main source of income for his family.

All farming is done traditionally by hand. The lack of modern farming equipment and other amenities means that it is long, tiring work. However, despite the hardships of village life, the area’s fertile soil and abundance of a vast variety of fruits and vegetables meant that hunger was rarely a problem. Whilst many issues plague the village today, starvation is not one of them.

Above: Rice farmers at work in rural Shan State

As a child, Mr B was regularly taken into the jungles surrounding the village. Here, his father taught him all about these ancient forests and what can be foraged from them. Mr B learned how to walk for many miles in the jungle, getting by with just a small machete. As a result, Mr B became an expert on wild medicinal plants, selling them for an extra income. He knows virtually every single one and its uses. Along the way, Mr B regularly observed orchids and other flowers. He did not collect most of these. Many were not medicinal, and Myanmar had no market for them as there was no local tradition for growing ornamental orchids.

But, Mr B was never taught that these jungles are “beautiful” and that they must be “preserved.” To Mr B and his family, the jungles were always just another source of food, medicine and extra income. Mr B and other villagers usually only went into the jungle to collect things, not for admiring nature. To Mr B, the orchids he saw there were just ordinary wild flowers. They had no purpose as there was no money to be made from them, nor could most of them be used for food or medicinal purposes.

It is important to realise that the concept of nature being “beautiful” and something to be “protected” are modern Western concepts. Starting with the USA, the first nature reserves and national parks in the world were only established in the early 20th century. Prior to this, few Westerners saw anything wrong with exploiting nature. Todat, many people outside the West, like Mr B, do not share this mindset. The way of thinking has simply not spread to many parts of the world, and neither has environmental education. Crucially, Mr B was never taught about environmental protection at school. Nothing at all was taught about the environment and just how fragile it is.

Above: Typical village life in rural Shan State

Fast forward to 2013. Mr B’s village was opened up to tourists after being closed by Myanmar’s government for decades. Soon, people unknown to Mr B from outside the village arrived. These were businesspeople from Myanmar’s big cities and neighbouring countries. And they were looking for something in particular: orchids and other wildlife.

By now, Mr B was in his 40s and had a lifetime of experience of walking through the jungle in search for medicinal plants. He knew exactly where orchids were, big and small. Suddenly, those worthless wildflowers finally had a purpose. When the businesspeople asked Mr B to collect orchids for them, he willingly agreed. They offered to pay him 1 US dollar per kilo of various species. Mr B couldn’t believe that orchids were actually worth anything at all to anyone. “We’re paying you a very good price” the businesspeople promised.

Years later, Mr B was very surprised to hear from me that a SINGLE orchid plant from 1 kilo of orchids is sold on for 20 US dollars or even more.

Above: Poached, wild collected orchids for sale in Mr B’s village

The arrival of these businesspeople marked the end of small scale, sustainable plant collection. It also signaled the beginning of large scale environmental degradation, previously unseen in the village. For the first time, wild collected orchids appeared in the village market. Sometimes they are there in their thousands, all collected by Mr B and other villagers. Entire ancient jungle trees began to be cut down to rip off the orchids on their branches. Orchids are sometimes sold still attached to pieces of branch from these trees. “It’s only the jungle, it’ll all regenerate” insist the villagers as deforestation continues all around them.

Environmental education is still not a feature in local schools.

Meanwhile, those businesspeople began to profit massively from wild orchids, which usually went across the border to neighbouring countries. “Myanmar orchids” regularly appear online and offline, nobody bothering to disguise their less than legal origin. But those villagers in Shan State actually collecting them see very little improvement in their day to day living.
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Above: Poached wild Dendrobium pulchellum for sale in Mr B’s village. According to the villagers, it was “very common a few years ago.” It is now very rare in the wild.

When I first met Mr B and Mrs C in 2017 I was met with a lukewarm reception. After declaring I wanted to see orchids in nature without taking anything and/or buying from Mr B there was visible reservation. “You love to see orchids in nature, but I collect them to sell” Mr B fretted. He was worried I might be there to stop him. Orchid loving businesspeople had given value to previously worthless plants. Mr B felt lucky to be able to sell them to anyone, even for a dollar per kilo. He also thought it was bizarre that someone would only want to see orchids in nature without actually collecting anything. In Mr B’s mind, going to nature for recreational purposes only seemed very strange indeed.

It would have been easy at this stage to condemn Mr B’s actions and walk away. After all, I am a proud environmentalist. But, rather than react with anger, I approached this situation without any judgement. I wanted to understand the situation, find out WHY this is happening and see if there was anything I could do to help.

Mr B agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to show me wild orchids around the village. So, on my next few trips we did just that. At his home, whilst I was greeted with traditional Myanmar hospitality of food and green tea by Mrs C, there was not much smiling. Instead, there was suspicion and distance. Having spent their whole lives living in a corrupt military dictatorship that did little for them meant they were very wary of the motives of outsiders.

Above: the author looking for wild orchids in the jungles near Mr B’s village

But, myself and Thant Sin Aye never gave up. We kept visiting and making conversation with Mr B. We then asked him to be a guide for our upcoming orchid tour in July 2019. We also asked him to not collect wild orchids we saw on our surveys, so our guests would have something to see. “Please look after them for me” I pleaded. Mr B agreed, but there didn’t seem to be an overly enthusiastic response. I nevertheless hoped for the best.

Everybody told us we were wasting our time. “Asians will never change, they’ll always take from the wild!” declared one acquaintance after being told of our plans. To be fair, expectations from our side were low. We struggled to get in touch with Mr B just before our tour group arrived. At that stage, I genuinely thought he’d let us down.

Above: Stall selling poached wild collected orchids in Mr B’s village. Note the pieces of wood; ancient jungle trees are being cut into pieces, then sold with the orchids still on them

But on the day, Mr B was there waiting, on time and at the agreed location. We started walking and saw lots of wild orchids. “I kept them safe in the wild for you” Mr B said through the translator. At that point, I wanted to cry with happiness. I never gave up on Mr B, and my efforts paid off.

Despite having no experience in tourism, Mr B was wonderful with the guests. He showed himself to be patient, kind and reliable, stopping to account for everyone and regularly giving a hand to the less able guests whilst smiling the entire time. Prior to this, Mr B thought this was a strange request. “Why do they want to go into the nature just to look, why don’t they want to collect anything?” he asked me. Mr B only ever went to the jungle collect things and couldn’t understand why people liked to go and just look. But he nevertheless showed great enthusiasm with the group, and we all had such a wonderful day. It couldn’t have gone any better.

Above: Paphiopedilum bellatulum. Indigenous around Mr B’s village, this is one of the wild orchids Mr B preserved for us in the wild

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After my group went home, I went to see Mr B and Mrs C. This time, enthusiasm and smiles greeted me. Both were grinning from ear to ear. “When is the next group coming?” asked Mr B, adding how much he enjoyed that day. Mrs B was full of smiles and laughter. Her cooking was as delicious as ever. “I love to see you enjoying this food” Mr B said. After years of trying we finally made a breakthrough. I said that, from now on, Mr B will guide every orchid tour I take to the country. He enthusiastically accepted and said he looked forward to it.

On this occasion, Mr B and Mrs C told me more details of their life. I listened in stunned silence as Mrs C explained how she lost 2 of her children, aged 4 and 2, to illness. She didn’t have the correct medicine and couldn’t get them to hospital. The authorities did nothing to help and both died in her arms. It also turned out that Mrs C’s first husband died, and that Mr B married her and raised her children as his own. They went on to have 7 more children together. “But there is never any stress” Mrs C smiled. At that point I realised just what a remarkable, kind man Mr B is.

When I got back to my hotel room that day I cried. Those were hot tears of injustice for Mr B and Mrs C, among the very many forgotten, ignored villagers in Myanmar. I cried for the 2 innocent children who needlessly died because nobody lifted a finger to get them basic medicine. And I cried how these businesspeople, under the disguise of “helping” them, are getting rich at the expense of degrading Myanmar’s environment beyond repair. Those businesspeople get to live in nice houses, travel the world, see cities one can only dream of. Meanwhile, Mr B and Mrs C get next to nothing. It’s exploitation in all but name.

Above: The author in Shan State jungle with Calanthe triplicata orchids (white flowers)

It amazes me how so many people-including conservationists-do not give any focus to people like Mr B and Mrs C. Instead, I have seen many write off such people as “hard work.” But, if you lived in a country whose institutions have ignored you for decades, would you be instantly open to listening to representatives of those institutions or other outsiders? One thing is clear: until we stop just referring to all people like Mr B and Mrs C as simple statistics like “poor villagers collecting wildlife” rather than spending time with them and listening to them, wildlife collection will continue indefinitely. The above also shows that, despite being hopeless, it is actually very possible to work with indigenous people and make a difference.

My wish for 2020 is for us all to think of and listen to each other more, particularly those less fortunate than us who are deemed “difficult.” Don’t forget that, rather than being simple statistics, everybody is a human being with parents who love them. And I genuinely believe everyone has the ability to learn.

On my last visit to Mr B, he took me to a new site to see more orchids. Despite having a very painful leg and noticeable limp, he insisted we still go and had a smile the entire time. For me, that sums up Mr B’s kindness and determination, an ordinary Burmese villager who many others would have written off as “difficult.” We also hope that the day will come soon when Mr B. will stop collecting wildlife altogether.
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If you want to meet Mr B and Mrs C we are running wild Orchid and Culture Tours to Myanmar in 2021. I do of course pay them for this 🙂 Please email info@realescapetravel.co.uk to get in touch.

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