Vanishing

Scott Ezell

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The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It
Vanda Felbab-Brown
Hurst & Company: 2017

In February 2016, I crossed the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos at the border town of Huay Xay and hitchhiked north and west along the river. It was the dry season: sand bars rose up along the Mekong like reptile skins, and the current ran sluggish and dull like smelted tin. A balding Lao engineer pulled over and offered me a ride in his pick-up. I was heading to the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a parcel of land ceded to Chinese economic interests by the Laos government, ostensibly to stimulate local development, but in practice functioning as a legal black hole for animal trafficking, prostitution and money laundering.

The engineer dropped me at the turn-off from the two-lane highway and I walked up a broad, tree-lined boulevard. At the centre of the SEZ, the Kings Romans Casino (sic) rose like a golden, spray-painted bauble, surrounded by hundreds of acres of banana plantations. Chinese security guards in storm-trooper boots stood around punching dully at mobile phones. Enormous faux-Greek statues loomed from alcoves in the casino walls, and the parking lot was filled with luxury vehicles, including a row of four Rolls-Royces, their gleaming ostentation surreal in a tropical landscape where many people still farm with oxen and live on a dollar a day.

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