DESPITE a series of arrests and seizures, senior police in Thailand claim endemic corruption is making it impossible to prosecute those behind a multi-million pound trade in illegally trafficked wildlife.
A ten-fold increase in wildlife law enforcement actions, including seizures, has been reported in the past six years in South-east Asia. Yet the trade’s kingpins appear immune from arrest.
“It is very difficult for me. I have to sit among people who are both good and some who are corrupt, said Chanvut Vajrabukka, a retired police general. “If I say, ‘You have to go out and arrest that target,’ some in the room may well warn them,” said Mr Vajrabukka, who now advises the Association of South-East Asian Nations’ Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-Wen).
Several traders, said wildlife activist Steven Galster, have recently been confronted by authorities, “but in the end, good uniforms are running into, and often stopped by bad uniforms. It’s like a bad Hollywood cop movie. Most high-level traffickers remain untouched and replace arrested underlings with new ones”.
Recently, Lieutenant Colonel Adtaphon Sudsai, a highly regarded, outspoken Thai officer, was instructed to back off what had seemed an open-and-shut case he cracked four years ago when he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin, a mammal akin to the armadillo.
This led him to Mrs Daoreung Chaimas, alleged by conservation groups to be one of South-east Asia’s biggest tiger dealers. Despite being arrested twice, having her own assistants testify against her and DNA testing that showed two seized cubs were not offsprings from zoo-bred parents as she claimed, Daoreung remains free and the case may never go to court.
“Her husband has been exercising his influence,” said Col Sudsai, referring to her police officer spouse. “It seems that no policeman wants to get involved with this case.” The day the officer went to arrest her the second time, his transfer to another post was announced. “Maybe it was a coincidence,” the colonel said. “I admit that in many cases I cannot move against the big guys,” Mr Vajrabukka notes. “The syndicates are built like a pyramid. We can capture the small guys but at the top they have money, the best lawyers, protection. What are we supposed to do?”
His problems are shared by others in South-east Asia, the prime conduit for wildlife destined for the world’s No 1 consumer – China – where many animal parts are used in the belief they have medicinal properties.
Most recently, a torrent of rhino horn and elephant tusks has poured through it from Africa, which is suffering the greatest slaughter of these two endangered animals in decades.
Vietnam was singled out last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature as the top destination for the rhino horn.
Tens of thousands of birds, mostly parrots and cockatoos plucked from the wild, are being imported from the Solomon Islands into Singapore, in violation of Cites, the international convention on wildlife trade.
According to Traffic, the international body monitoring wildlife trade, the imported birds are listed as captive-bred, even though it’s widely known that the Pacific Ocean islands have virtually no breeding facilities. Communist Laos continues to harbour Vixay Keosavang, one of the region’s half dozen Mr Bigs, who has been linked to a rhino-horn smuggling ring. The 54-year-old former soldier and provincial official is reported to have close ties to senior officials in Laos and Vietnam.
Thai and foreign enforcement agents claim the gangs are increasingly linked to drug and human trafficking syndicates.
They said a key Thai smuggler, who runs a shipping company, has a gamut of law enforcement officers in his pocket, allowing him to traffic rhino horns, ivory and tiger parts to China.
According to agents, Chinese buyers, informed of shipments, fly to Bangkok, staying at hotels around the Chatuchak Market, where endangered species are openly sold. There they seal deals with known middlemen and freight operators.
“The bottom line is that if wildlife traffickers are not treated as serious criminals in south-east Asia we are just going to lose more wildlife,” said Chris Shepherd, the South-east Asia deputy director of wildlife campaign group Traffic.