Mark Leong’s photos from National Geographic’s January 2010 story, Asian Wildlife Trade, took first place in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. An investigative piece written by Bryan Christy, this project has had far-reaching impact and is credited with helping to prompt changes in enforcement of anti-smuggling laws in Malaysia.
At the Jatinegara Bird and Pet Market in Jakarta,West Java, wild-caught animals such as young long-tailed macaques are sold illegally alongside rabbits, goldfish and other legally traded, captive-bred pets. To stop them biting their owners, macaques have their sharp teeth blunted. Mark describes what happened when one pet-trader summoned him over to photograph how he did it. ‘He put his hand in the cage and pulled out one of the young macaques. It had seen what had happened to others and was squeaking with fear. Using pliers and a whetstone, the man trimmed and filed the monkey’s teeth. For many of these pictures, I shot with the focused remoteness that photography allows and sometimes requires. But for this shot I was right there with the macaque, imagining all that snapping and grinding being done to my teeth. It was excruciatingly painful to watch.’ – Mark Leong.
A remedy for impotence, liver disease, hangovers and more, bear bile is highly valued in Chinese medicine. Near Hanoi, Vietnam, a sedated Asiatic black bear is illegally pumped for bile, one of thousands of bears kept for this purpose throughout Asia. First, the bear is drugged. When it is unconscious or just partly conscious, the extractors use an ultrasound machine to find the gall bladder. They insert a long needle, attach a tube and pump 100-150cc of bile into a bottle. The whole process takes up to 20 minutes. ‘The bear looked almost human, so vulnerable,’ says Mark. ‘The market for bile is strong, and with little government enforcement of the law, this practice is pretty widespread across Vietnam. Bile is often openly advertised by the side of the road.’
Every day, workers in Rantau Prapat, Sumatra, slaughter and skin hundreds of reptiles brought to them by trappers. ‘There were masses of tied-up sacks full of live pythons and monitor lizards,’ says Mark. ‘The men kill or at least stun each animal with a blow to the head. Then they fill the snake with water and air to make it easier to slit open, gut and skin.’ The dried skins are sold to the international leather-goods industry, to be made into luxury and fashion items such as wallets, belts and boots. The gall bladders go to Chinese traditional medicine dealers. ‘I wanted to convey both the volume of the processing as well as the hellish element of this assembly line, to get across the message that this is an industrial-scale wild-animal trade.’
Every day, animals at the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park of Guilin, Guangxi, China, perform in circus-style shows – an easily accessible tourist attraction near the city’s airport. The park, which owns more than 400 bears and 1300 tigers, claims to be working for conservation by keeping them safe in captivity. But it has also lobbied for lifting regulations on the tiger-trade ban, especially when it comes to tiger-bone wine (the park has an attached distillery). DNA tests on food from the park restaurant subsequently revealed that it was illegally serving tiger meat. ‘There has been speculation that some so-called zoos or parks may be stockpiling animals in anticipation of a change in the law, which would allow them to utilize captive-bred tigers legally,’ says Mark.
Orangutans confiscated from circuses, sideshows and private owners in Kalimantan, Indonesia, are taken in by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. The orphans go to ‘forest school’ – the rainforest – where they can practise skills such as climbing and learn which plants are edible. Mark included the shot to show that not all interaction with Asian animals is consumptive. ‘The hardest part of this shoot,’ says Mark, ‘was resisting the urge to play with the little ones, because they are so social, curious and adorable.’ It was important that he didn’t, though, because there’s one more crucial skill these orphans must learn if they are ever to be released back into the forest: to be wary of humans. But, of course, they can only ever be released if there is forest rather than oil-palm plantations for them to live in.