Police in northeastern Thailand made a grisly discovery last week. Abandoned in a forest near the border with Laos were hundreds of dog skins alongside a pile of dog bones.They were probably left by smugglers who wanted to take them through Laos and then on to Vietnam or China. In those countries, demand for dog parts for consumption in restaurants is strong.
Not just the dog meat is prized. Factories use leather from dog skin for use in everything from drums to guitars, says John Dalley, co-founder and vice-president of the Soi Dog Foundation, a nongovernmental organization in Thailand devoted to canine welfare. Manufacturers of golf gloves also prize dog leather, Dalley adds, especially from the skin of the testicles of male dogs “because that skin is particularly soft.” (Alibaba.com, the business-to-business website owned by Chinese e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba, has lots of listings for gloves made from dogs.)
Dalley, an Englishman who retired to the Thai island of Phuket a decade ago, is optimistic that governments in Southeast Asia are finally taking effective action to crack down on the widespread illegal business. Last year, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand agreed to stop the trade in live dogs for use in the dog-meat industry in Vietnam. And in February, the Vietnamese government pledged to inspect border crossings more closely to stop traders from taking dogs into the country. The measures are having an impact. While some half-a-million dogs a year were probably transported in 2011, he says, now “the numbers are well down.”
Still, as the March 25 discovery of abandoned dog skins shows, a lot of work remains to be done. Dog smugglers might be trying to outsmart the authorities by switching away from live dogs and focusing on frozen dog meat, says Dalley, who founded Soi Dog Foundation with his wife, Gill, after moving to Phuket in 2003.
And while the Vietnamese government may be trying harder to prevent smugglers from crossing the border between Vietnam and Laos. Traders have plenty of resources to bribe officials. “The smugglers are paying huge amounts of money to authorities to turn the other way,” says Dalley.
Thailand has a large population of stray dogs wandering the streets of major towns and cities, but most of those captured for meat or pelts are stolen from pet owners or temples. “Stray dogs are extremely difficult to catch,” explains Dalley. “It’s far easier to catch pet dogs or unwanted service dogs.” The illegal trade is based on “extreme cruelty from start to finish,” he adds. “We see over 100 dogs stuffed into cages in the back of pickup trucks. Lots of dogs are skinned alive. It’s a horrendous industry with absolutely no regulation.”
Officials taking action against the dog trade are not necessarily motivated by concern about stolen pets and animal welfare. Southeast Asian governments are trying to fight the spread of rabies, making the trade in illegal dogs a public health issue. About 100 people in Vietnam die annually from rabies, with most cases caused by unvaccinated dogs.
With traders transporting so many animals, chances that dogs will escape and spread rabies are high. “Some of the trucks have 2,000 dogs on them. and inevitably, some will escape,” Dalley says. “You are looking at potential of spreading rabies throughout the region because of mass movement of dogs.”