5 Markets to Avoid When Travelling – The Responsible Tourist

It’s a treat to go overseas, to get away from your daily 9 to 5 routine and to immerse yourself in a completely different culture which will ultimately result in you growing as a person – whether you admit it or not!

5 Markets to Avoid When Travelling – The Responsible Tourist

By Rob Hanley

Let’s face it, one of the best ways to do this is to go and get a taste of the country’s best dishes at the local market where food can be one of the best ways to break down barriers between you and the locals. Whether you’re going to be munching a path through Thailand’s food markets, chomping on Peruvian delicacies made by the quirkiest old woman or enjoying a genuine Mexican taco, markets can be the best way to win you over when travelling. Unfortunately, a lot of markets can have a more sinister side as well which you should be aware of before venturing into their depths. Some of the larger markets deal in more than just local culinary delights and we’ve listed the top five that also have a darker side that can notably affect the wildlife of the very country that you’ve come to love!

1. Chatuchak Market, Thailand

Chatuchak Market opens its doors every weekend in Bangkok and it is definitely an experience you will never forget. As one of the largest open flea markets in Thailand, it attracts locals and tourists alike. The market boasts over 8,000 vendors selling every type of good imaginable: ceramics, antiques, furniture, clothing and accessories and endangered animals…yes, endangered animals.

Whilst it may be a bit upsetting for some to see the kittens and puppies in cages, plenty of these stores in the animal section are simply a façade for a darker trade. With a bit of probing, you can find squirrel gliders, most species of monkey, African tortoises and even rare macaws from South America to name but a few! In many cases, the actual sale does not take place at the store, but the deal might be arranged or brokered there. The bustling market lanes then provide excellent cover for the exchange of the exotic wildlife, conducted out of the back of trucks or down side-alleys. This makes it hard for the authorities to track, and allows for an easy and quick getaway in case of detection.

Markets to Avoid When TravellingGoing through the market, you can begin to understand why Thailand still serves as a major funnel for the $10 billion illegal wildlife trade. The sale of non-native species in the domestic market is not covered under Thailand’s Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act. Therefore, once inside the country, it is up to the enforcement agencies to prove that the animals in question were illegally exported or imported, thus deterring them from taking effective action, rendering the CITES agreement essentially useless. When in Thailand, perhaps try to get your culinary delights from some of the lovely street vendors and avoid pumping money into a market like Chatuchak until Thailand tightens its commitment to CITES.

2. Pasar Barung in Denpasar, Bali

A 30-minute drive from Kuta, Pasar Barung is one of the most well-known wildlife markets in Bali. Pasar Barung literally means bird market in Indonesian and, whilst these types of market are common across the archipelago, they not only sell legal and illegal birds but also boast a selection of other animals from the depths of the Indonesian jungle, such as slow lorises, pangolins, monkeys, wild cats, snakes, toads, bats and squirrels. Whilst the popular Balinese tourism websites promote these markets as spectacles that you will “have trouble pulling the kids away from” there is blatantly a much darker side of this that you are encouraging if you visit this market. The sellers offer many species of animals and birds that are nearing extinction, so the place is hugely popular with collectors or those interested in exotic and endangered creatures.

A series of disturbing photos recently showed pangolin traffickers operating at the Denpasar Bird Market where pangolins were photographed arriving in crates and then being stuffed into bags for transport at one of the storefronts. With the pangolin recently listed as one of the most endangered mammals on the planet, this is definitely no laughing matter and Pasar Burung is not a light-hearted family trip to take when you are in Bali.

3. Mercado de Sonora, Mexico City

In addition to the stalls filled with love potions and figures of Santa Muerte, the market of Sonora, located south-east of the Historic centre of Mexico City, sells hundreds of caged animals. There are rows of kittens, dogs, pigs, lambs, goats and rabbits giant stuffed into tiny cages. Alongside them, there are tanks containing iguanas, turtles, piranhas and huge toads that are used for witchcraft, plus a huge variety of caged birds, such as canaries, turkeys and peacocks. But as we all know at these markets, the most exotic animals for sale are those that are hidden. Just 300 mating pairs of scarlet macaws remain, according to official documents. But these birds are sold at markets in the capital and other Mexican cities, almost in plain view.
“We can get any rare animal for you,” Eduardo, who runs a four-square-metre vending stall at the Sonora market in the capital, told a reporter who visited the market recently.
The vendor, who didn’t give his surname, has cats and dogs and canaries for sale and, behind a screen, an eagle for $200. What Eduardo is hiding are wild animals that are in danger of extinction, the sale of which is punishable by one to nine years in prison. But he sells anything, legal or not: tarantulas for nine dollars, spider monkeys for about $1,000, and a black iguana for $350. Although no official figures are available, the authorities estimate that species trafficking in Mexico is third only to drugs and arms trafficking.
Mercado de Sonora is billed as “one of the world’s most bizarre shopping experiences” and for good reason, if you have contacts can get toucans, monkeys and even lions! If you do consider yourself to be passionate about conservation, it’s best to avoid this market and encourage others to do the same.

4. Belen Market, Peru

Located in Iquitos – a city only reachable by air or along the Amazon River – Belen Market is a sight to behold. The floating slum and street market of Belen is the dangerous, putrid, beating heart of Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon – a town which has built its modern-day reputation, ironically, as a hotspot for Amazonian eco-tourism. The Belen Market is a huge, third world outdoor “super” market that covers 20 blocks or more. Everything that can be bought or sold is bought and sold there… and we mean everything! Nearly all of the food served in the restaurants, lodges, and cruise ships operating in Iquitos Peru comes from the Belen Market. Whilst the tourist dollars support the local economy, there is a darker side to the market which becomes increasingly obvious after a few twists and turns, which threatens to undermine the reason for the tourists visiting.

Markets to Avoid When Travelling
Caiman hung out to be butchered for the local meat trade.

Whilst endangered caiman and capybara are casually butchered next to the local chicken and cattle at open air stalls, it is just as easy to walk around to multiple stalls offering to sell you a local ‘health’ concoction of blended endangered frog or to encounter several scared spider monkeys crammed into smaller cages. It was recently estimated that over 200,000 of Peru’s primates are being trafficked for the illegal pet trade or bush meat yearly and Belen market is definitely one of the most notable starting points for this abhorrent business.


Markets to Avoid When Travelling
Left – A barbecued howler monkey is offered for sale
Right – Python skin and jaguar paw openly offered for sale at one of the many stalls at Belen Market.

Delve further into the market to come across products hailing from every animal imaginable from the deepest depths of the Amazon rainforest including jaguar paw, monkey skulls and jaguar skins intended for the wildlife trade or for the local shamans to use in their rituals.
Whilst it is more or less unregulated, Belen is a sight to behold and, with the risk it poses to tourists even going there, it is definitely a market which we would advise against visiting, both for your own safety and that of the animals it offers.

5. Mong La, Burma (Myanmar)

Of all of the markets mentioned, Mong La is by far the worst of the lot. The Special Development Zone of Mong La, Myanmar is on the border with China and, as a border town, is not bound by the Chinese government regulations. The entire town of Mong La functions as a market that caters exclusively for the Chinese market and is best described as a Chinese enclave in the relatively lawless region of northern Myanmar.

Mong La is at the crossroads of illegal wildlife trade routes that are sucking the forests, jungles and plains of India, Burma, Laos and Thailand dry of their native animals and plants – many of them endangered.

Markets to Avoid When Travelling
A shop openly sells tiger skins and ivory in Mong La

The town is a delectable enclave of debauchery for the Chinese market and their desire for illegal and endangered wildlife. Equipped with a morning market, wildlife trophy shops and wild meat restaurants, visitors to Mong La can find pangolins, tiger parts, endangered monkeys and any other species that South East Asia has to offer. With the recent opening up of the border with Burma, China has been cooperating more with the government and has seen Mong La dropped from the list of approved tourist destinations. Last month, Burmese authorities noted on World Environment Day that they are planning to close down the infamous Mong La marketplace after President U Htin Kyaw said he would not accept unlawful wildlife trafficking in Myanmar.

Markets to Avoid When Travelling
Pangolin scales are openly for sale at Daluo

Whilst disappointed Chinese are turned back at the border, the relative porousness of the aforementioned has seen an increase in wildlife trading in the neighbouring Chinese border town of Daluo. Given China’s attempts at leadership on the wildlife trade at a larger level, hopefully, it won’t be too long until they begin to seed out the apparent corruption at local level on both sides of the border and aim to end this heinous trade.

Avoiding Wildlife Markets

Ultimately it is your responsibility as a tourist to behave in an acceptable manner and to remain ethical when visiting another country. We ask people to NOT to purchase animals from pet markets. Please do not pay for or take your own photos of animals in unnatural settings. Whilst it is sad to see animals in captivity through the illegal wildlife trade and it might seem kind to purchase them, make sure you report the matter to the relevant local authorities.
Purchasing animals from pet markets only increases demand and stimulates this horrific and brutal trade. When an animal is sold, another is captured to replace it, thus continuing the cycle of misery. Next time you’re planning on visiting these tourist hotspots, beware of what you may uncover and ensure you are being a responsible visitor as often as possible.

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