EVEN the Minahasan people, who pride themselves on eating bushmeat, call the collection of stalls at Tomohon, in the highlands of North Sulawesi, the “extreme market”. There is certainly something extreme about the serried carcasses, blackened by blow torches to burn off the fur, the faces charred in a rictus grin. The sheer range of species on the slabs is also astonishing: reticulated pythons, warty pigs, flying foxes (a type of fruit bat) and the Sulawesi giant rat (no, it doesn’t taste like chicken). Especially as Christmas and Easter approach, other specimens find their way to the market, including crested macaques and a tree-dwelling marsupial, the adorable Sulawesi bear cuscus.

The pasar extrim speaks to Sulawesi’s striking biogeography. The Indonesian island straddles the boundary between Asiatic and Australian species—and boasts an extraordinary number of species found nowhere else. But the market also symbolises how Asia’s amazing biodiversity is under threat. Most of the species on sale in Tomohon have seen populations crash because of overhunting (habitat destruction has played a part too). Fewer than 6,000 crested macaques now inhabit the forests. The cuscus hangs on by its fingertips—or its curling, prehensile tail.

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The appetites of the locals are not the only worry. An hour’s drive from Tomohon is Bitung, terminus for ferry traffic from the Moluccan archipelago and Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. These regions are even richer in wildlife, especially birds. Trade in wild birds is supposedly circumscribed. Yet the ferries are crammed with them: Indonesian soldiers returning from a tour in Papua typically pack a few wild cockatoos or lories to sell. One in five urban households in Indonesia keeps birds. Bitung feeds Java’s huge bird markets. The port is also a shipment point on a bird-smuggling route to the Philippines and then to China, Taiwan, even Europe. Crooked officials enable the racket.

The trade in animal parts used for traditional medicine or to denote high status, especially in China and Vietnam, is an even bigger racket. Many believe ground rhino horn to be effective against fever, as well as to make you, well, horny. Javan and Sumatran rhinos were not long ago widespread across South-East Asia, but poaching has confined them to a few tiny pockets of the islands after which they are named. Numbers of the South Asian rhinoceros are healthier, yet poachers in Kaziranga national park in north-east India have killed 74 in the past three years alone.

Name your charismatic species and measure decline. Between 2010 and 2017 over 2,700 of the ivory helmets of the helmeted hornbill, a striking bird from South-East Asia, were seized, with Hong Kong a notorious transshipment hub. It is critically endangered. As for the tiger, in China and Vietnam its bones and penis feature in traditional medicine, while tiger fangs and claws are emblems of status and power. Fewer than 4,000 tigers survive in the wild. The pressure from poachers is severe, especially in India. The parts of over 1,700 tigers have been seized since 2000.

The brutal economics of extinction leads to two conclusions. Those holding valuable stocks of a particular creature have little interest in saving it in the wild. And it pays to generate new demand and supply. Both conclusions favour well-organised international criminal syndicates.

Asia’s wildlife mafias have gone global. Owing to Asian demand for horns, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa leapt from 13 in 2007 to 1,028 last year. The new frontline is South America. A jaguar’s four fangs, ten claws, pelt and genitalia sell for $20,000 in Asia. Between 2013 and 2016 authorities in Bolivia seized 380 jaguar fangs.

South Africa auctions permits to hunt a few rhinos each year, with the proceeds supposed to fund conservation. This has provided cover for poachers. One Thai smuggler used prostitutes to pose as legal trophy hunters; the dead beasts’ horns ended up in Asia. Schemes to farm animals, which some said would undercut incentives to poach, have proved equally harmful. Lion parts from South African farms are sold in Asia as a cheaper substitute for tiger, or passed off as tiger—either way, stimulating demand. The farming of tigers in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam provides cover for the trafficking of wild tiger parts. Meanwhile, wild animals retain their cachet—consumers of rhino horn believe the wild rhino grazes only on medicinal plants.

From eco-warriors to eco-detectives

The anti-trafficking regime laid out under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, struggles to keep up. But change is in the air. Wildlife NGOs are hiring ex-cops as sleuths and working with governments to provide intelligence on trafficking networks. In Indonesia the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an American NGO, helps bring half of all cases of wildlife crime to court. Of those cases, says Dwi Adhiasto of the WCS, nine-tenths end in convictions, compared with just half when it is not involved.

The arrest in Thailand in January of Boonchai Bach, head of one of Asia’s biggest wildlife-trafficking networks, was cause for cheer. But many weak links remain, not least corruption and poor enforcement in Cambodia and Laos, the preferred smuggling routes into China and Vietnam. Scott Roberton of WCS in Vietnam says governments are getting more serious about wildlife crime, with China taking the lead. But authorities in different countries do not collaborate enough against the traffickers.

Curbing demand may prove even harder. Consuming rhino horn has no more medicinal value than chewing your nails. Yet demand for rhino leapt in Vietnam on rumours that a government minister had been cured of cancer by it. Some younger, more affluent Asians are growing interested in eating wild meat. Back in Sulawesi, some conservationists want Minahasan pastors to thunder from the pulpit against bushmeat—even though their bellies might argue otherwise.

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