BANGKOK — Myanmar will soon adopt rules that would permit captive breeding of about 175 threatened species, including tigers, pangolins and Irrawaddy dolphins, despite fears that such ventures could encourage poaching of wild animals and spawn new diseases that jump to humans.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation quietly circulated a list of wildlife last month that could be raised commercially for display in zoos, tourist attractions or hotels and, in a handful of cases, to produce meat for sale to the public.
Government officials assert that the list is aimed at improving wildlife protection by reducing illegal hunting and increasing conservation under a 2018 law. The government is expected to issue detailed rules on commercial breeding in coming months, said U Naing Zaw Htun, the ministry’s director of wildlife conservation.
But international conservation groups said the plan could undermine wildlife protection by increasing demand for wild meat and for species used in traditional medicine.
“Commercial trade has been shown to increase illegal trade in wildlife by creating a parallel market and boosting overall demand for wild animal products,” the World Wildlife Fund and Fauna and Flora International said in a joint statement questioning the government plan.
The list posted on government websites identifies 89 species of mammals, birds and reptiles, including such rare creatures as the helmeted hornbill, the Bengal slow loris and the white-handed gibbon.
The list also includes a reference to snakes as a broad category. At least 100 snake species in Myanmar are threatened, including the Burmese python, the spitting cobra and the Russell’s viper, said U Kyi Soe Lwin, manager of the privately run Yangon Zoological Garden.
Conservationists contend that commercial breeding of protected wildlife would undermine efforts to protect endangered species. Captive breeding has little conservation value, they say, because such animals are rarely suited for release in the wild.
Animal experts and conservationists said that as least 175 of the species covered by the list are considered threatened in Myanmar or globally.
It is unclear whether the rules would allow endangered animals to be captured in the wild.
Under the ministry’s plan, eight species can be commercially farmed for meat, including at least one that is listed as threatened in Myanmar: the estuarine, or saltwater, crocodile. Naing Zaw Htun, the government official, defended the inclusion of the crocodile because breeding it for its meat and skin is already permitted.
Keeping wildlife for human consumption, especially in crowded Asian markets, has been linked to viruses that have infected humans, including the coronavirus that has caused the current pandemic, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which emerged in 2002 and killed nearly 800 people worldwide.
Conservationists and health experts have urged governments around the world to curb consumption of wild meat, or bush meat, as it is sometimes known.
“Commercial wildlife breeding and trade can also increase the risk of disease spillover from wildlife to humans, such as COVID-19,” the World Wildlife Fund and Fauna and Flora International said.
The pangolin, which at one point was suspected of playing a part in the transmission of the new coronavirus, could be bred in Myanmar zoos under the new regulations.
Both of the country’s species, the Sunda pangolin and the Chinese pangolin, are critically endangered, said U Nay Myo Shwe, a wildlife expert with Fauna and Flora International.
Permitting captive breeding of tigers in Myanmar could open a new base of operations for illegal tiger traders.
In much of Southeast Asia, demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine and human encroachment have put tremendous pressure on the species. Conservationists say that a flourishing market in tiger parts gives poachers an incentive to hunt wild tigers and sell them.
In Myanmar, scientists have identified 22 individual tigers in the wild and estimate that no more than 50 survive in two fragmented habitats, giving the species little chance of long-term survival.
Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, said he expected investors seeking to establish tiger farms in Myanmar would obtain animals from China and Laos, where enforcement is relatively lax.
Another endangered species on the government’s list is the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Nay Myo Shwe, the wildlife expert, said only about 75 of the freshwater dolphins survive in Myanmar, where they inhabit the Irrawaddy River for which they are named. None are in captivity, he said, and so the only way to begin commercial breeding would be to capture a pair.
“Putting dolphins in zoos would be like having them live in lockdown conditions,” he said. “The nature of the dolphin is, they like to range freely in a very wide area, not in a limited area like a zoo.”
Similarly, he questioned the inclusion of the helmeted hornbill, which is so critically endangered that its numbers are unknown. Like the dolphin, none are kept in captivity, so commercial breeding would mean capturing them.
The helmeted hornbill, which lives in Myanmar’s dwindling pristine forests, has long been sought for its large horn, which is prized for carving and is sometimes used in China as a substitute for ivory.