tiger skins
Skins of wild tigers from across Asia being sold at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. Environmental Investigation Agency

The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos, located along its border with Myanmar and Thailand, has become an “illegal playground” where endangered wild animals are brazenly sold in the open, according to a report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The report, titled “Sin City,” details how animals like tigers, bears and pangolins, among others, are being bred in captivity for their meat and body parts.

“While Laos’ wildlife laws are weak, there is not even a pretense of enforcement in the GT SEZ (Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone),” the report, written jointly by EIA and Education for Nature Vietnam, said. “Sellers and buyers are free to trade a host of endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills, snakes and bears, poached from Asia and Africa, and smuggled to this small haven for wildlife crime.”

The 3,000-hectare GT SEZ is under the control of the Chinese Kings Romans Group. The Laos government is reportedly a 20 percent shareholder in the project, whose stated aim is to attract foreign investment in trade and tourism to drive local economic growth.

A map showing the location of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. Environmental Investigation Agency

“Despite being situated on land leased from the Government of Laos, the GT SEZ appears more like an extension of China. It is run on Beijing time, signs are in Mandarin, the majority of workers are Chinese nationals and Chinese yuan is the main currency used,” the report claimed. Most customers are also Chinese nationals as many of them believe that rare animal meat and body parts contain aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities.

The EIA found, during its investigation, that many of the animal species sold and eaten in the region are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) -- an international treaty that prohibits cross-border trade in rare wildlife. For instance, a restaurant in the region advertised “sauté tiger meat” and “tiger bone wine” on its menu, while another specialized in dishes made of bear paws, monitor lizards, pangolins, snakes and turtles.

“Investigators observed a live python and a bear cub kept in cages by the restaurant entrance and the kitchen exit, respectively -- both of which were available to eat on request,” the report said.

laos poaching
Ivory for sale in Chinese retail outlets in the capital city of Vientiane (Left). Bear paws soaked in liquor (Right). Environmental Investigation Agency

Moreover, the report also detailed the open sale of tiger and leopard skins, stuffed tigers, rhino horns, Asiatic black bears and products made of ivory. The illegal tiger farms are putting severe pressure on the global tiger population, which is already perilously close to extinction, the report claimed. According to some estimates, there are as few as 3,200 tigers remaining in the wild today.

“Laos has emerged as an illegal wildlife trade hub for many species due to its strategic location in South East Asia and weak law enforcement,” the report said, adding that the country is serving as both a source and transit country for the trade.

In the report, EIA urged the government of Laos to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal wildlife trade and also called for the establishment of a multi-agency task force to tackle the problem. “There are several well-established wildlife trade hotspots and trafficking routes in the region that do not appear to have been subject to law enforcement, despite previous exposés,” the report alleged.