TACHILEIK, Myanmar — Furry bear paws lie next to neatly arranged skins of jungle cats, skulls of monkeys and horns of mountain goats. The parts of vanishing species from Southeast Asia's forests are laid out for Chinese buyers seeking sex boosters, cures for cancer and exotic food.
"Very strong. It can fight with a tiger, so it's good for sex," the vendor says, pointing to a pair of wild buffalo horns priced at $125 and explaining that in powder form, they'll surely enhance virility given the animal's power.
A sizable quantity of wildlife is slain to supply dealers in this scruffy town on the Thailand-Myanmar border. But Tachileik is just one node of a trade network that funnels fauna and flora from across the region to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand in China.
There, millions of people still believe rhino horn prevents convulsions, pickled turtle flippers increase longevity and fresh snake blood makes a potent aphrodisiac. And with China's growing affluence, more can afford exotic wildlife dishes once served only at banquets of the elite.
Having strained China's domestic supply, the network's tentacles are extending to scoop up pangolins in Indonesia, snakes from Vietnam, dendrobium orchids in Laos, and the few remaining tigers and bears in Myanmar.
"The biggest problem facing wildlife in Southeast Asia is its domestic consumption in China. The Chinese are vacuuming it up," said Steven Galster, who heads the conservation group WildAid Asia.
Despite some efforts by the Chinese government to curb the trade, ecologists agree that the current harvest is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to the eradication of species.
"It doesn't look good. We are at the stage where a lot of species are on the edge. There haven't been a lot of extinctions, but there will be soon," said James Compton, who heads the Southeast Asian office of Traffic, an international treaty agency that monitors trade in wildlife.
Since much of the trade is illegal and often conducted in remote areas, it's difficult to pinpoint numbers. But Compton and others offer some indications of its scale and range:
* Researchers have a far better chance of finding rare turtles in the markets of Shanghai or Guangzhou than the wilds of Southeast Asia, where more than half the species are listed as endangered.
As much as 10,000 tons of freshwater turtles are annually traded in the region for use in food and traditional medicine, creating what the experts say is an "Asian turtle crisis."
In Laos, villagers who a decade ago could get $100 for a golden turtle, the blood of which is said to cure cancer, now sell it for $1,000.
"If a Chinese industrialist has a tumor, he'll offer anything," said Roland Eve, who directs the World Wide Fund for Nature in Laos.
* The tiny seahorse is classified as vulnerable worldwide chiefly because in dried form, it is used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat asthma, heart disease, impotence and other ills.
Project Seahorse, a conservation group, estimates that 20 million of the creatures are taken each year in the South China Sea and elsewhere, with 95% ending up in Chinese apothecaries.
* Having decimated the pangolin populations in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China itself, smugglers now seek the scaly anteater in Malaysia and Indonesia. In the first eight months of 2003, some 10,000 animals smuggled from the Indonesian archipelago were seized in southern Thailand.
Selling for $45 a pound in Shanghai, pangolin meat is regarded as highly nutritious, while its scales are prescribed for ailments ranging from skin diseases to lack of milk in breast-feeding mothers.
The region's pangolins, snakes and freshwater turtles are now the most intensely sought-after species, having eclipsed the trade in tiger bone, rhino horn and bear gallbladder due to decimation of the latter species and tougher policing of the smuggling of those parts.
The harvesters of wildlife in Southeast Asia are generally poor villagers and fishermen who sell to local markets or small-time dealers, who pass the products into the well-established, sophisticated trade networks crisscrossing the region.
The big-time operators, WildAid and Traffic say, often employ the same routes used for smuggling drugs, people and even weapons, seeking passages where corruption is rife and law enforcement lax. Authorities have nabbed shipments of drugs stuffed into dead animals and frozen shrimp with iced pangolin or snakes layered beneath them.
The routes are sometimes long and circuitous. A wildlife shipment from Sumatra in Indonesia may pass through Malaysian-Chinese middlemen in Kuala Lumpur who bribe airport officials and fly the cargo by private plane to Vientiane, Laos. It can then be trucked to Vietnam and finally to China through thriving Vietnamese-Chinese wildlife ventures. Singapore and Thailand are also important transit countries.