Wildlife Smuggling in Thailand: A Matter of Convenience
By William M. Reyland
1 September 2011
The illegal trade in protected and endangered plants and animals is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is a trade that manages to supersede the complexities of international treaties and operates with near impunity, and Thailand is no exception.
The United States Embassy in Bangkok reported that approximately U.S. $15 million in illegal contraband was recovered in Thailand in 2011. “On March 31, 2011, Thai customs agents seized more than two tons of Africa elephant tusks, the largest seizure of illegal ivory in Thailand’s history”.1
Thailand is known for many positive attributes, not the least of which are its rich cultural traditions, world renowned food, and Buddhist history. Unfortunately, it is also known as a global hub for the sale and distribution of rare and endangered animals. Despite various international treaties and cooperation with non governmental organizations, the vitality of the Thai trade in endangered species continues to mystify the international community. Random or sensational airport seizures might lead one to believe that the authorities are truly in the game, however, the majority of Thai animal trafficking and sales take place along its land borders and interior waterways. These are locations with little or no enforcement and a great deal of poverty. In addition, the risk of prosecution, measured against substantial profits, is disproportionable. For example, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, gibbons can easily bring upwards ofU.S. $16,000 for a single specimen.2 Under Thai law, the maximum fine for an animal trafficking offense is approximately U.S. $1,600.
Attapon Sudsai,3 of the Central Investigation Bureau's natural resources and environmental crime suppression division, recognizes that the trafficking situation in Thailand has not been sufficiently addressed by Thai law enforcement authorities. This is despite international monitoring and Thailand’s worldwide reputation as an animal trafficking hub. According to Sudsai:
“China is a major market for smugglers selling illegal wildlife products, especially pangolins and tigers” Their dwindling numbers have made Thailand a major hub for wildlife trafficking. Both live and dead animals, and animal parts, are smuggled from local forests and sold on China's black market.”
Home Decorations, Arts and Crafts, Endangered Species
Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market buzzes with the sounds of international capitalism. Tourist and native shuffle and collide along the maze of cramped corridors, packed with everything from royal porcelain to corn on the cob. Tucked into the western reaches of the market, away from the coffee shops, t-shirts, and papaya salad, is a darker side of this virtual tourist vortex; a international hub for the sale and distribution of endangered species. Pangolins, turtles, exotic birds, reptiles and even primates are readily available. Undercover reports have indicated that the vendors that deal in these species do so with an acceptable level of impunity and despite sporadic raids by the authorities, are typically back in business a short time later. Documentary evidence has also illuminated the poor conditions in which the endangered animals are often kept and the cavalier attitude of the vendors who sell them. Unfortunately, a similar fate often awaits them when they are packed for shipment inside a variety of cruel and unusual contrivances. In order to avoid detection, smugglers have packed iguanas inside prosthetic legs, flying squirrels into secret luggage compartments and even taped bags of cobras to their chests. Many of these individuals end up requiring the assistance of Attorneys in Thailand, after their arrest at the airport in Bangkok.
According to Dr. Chution Savani, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the reason Thailand has become an international hub for animal trafficking is quite simple.4 With the many available land and water transit points in and out of the country, coupled with inadequate enforcement, “Thailand is convenient”. In addition, the species of animals traded along Thailand’s western borders, such as with Myanmar, are not limited to tigers and other large mammals, but a whole range of crucial animal biodiversity, fueled primarily by traditional medicine. In terms of the environmental costs, Dr. Savani believes the adverse environmental effects of the illegal trade in Thailand can be clearly seen in Khao Yai National park. According to Dr. Savani, the insufficient number of tigers has upset the “ecological function of the food chain”. Disruptions of this magnitude severely affect the ecosystem. In the case of Khao Yai National Park, the absence of the top predator has resulted in exploding cow populations and overgrazing. It has also allowed the populations of wild dog to increase significantly. A seizure of 259 species in February of 2011 is particularly telling.5 This seizure, conducted by airport officials, involved a total of 259 species packed into three suit cases. The seizure was shocking in its biodiversity in that it included live spiders, lizards, snakes, squirrels, a parrot and the extremely rare ploughshare tortoise. The Indonesian suspect allegedly told the police he had purchased the animals at Chatuchak Market.
All of the aforementioned 259 rare or endangered species were available less than an hour from Bangkok International Airport. It is therefore conceivable that one could arrive in Thailand, take a taxi directly to Chatuchak Market, fill a few bags with rare animals and depart the country. According to William Schaedla, the regional director of the wildlife monitoring network, Traffic, “one really has to question how Chatuchak Market, which is located just down the street from both Wildlife Protection and Nature Crime Police Offices, can continue these illegal mass sales.”
Another recent and highly publicized seizure in Thailand involved suspect Noor Mahmoodr, a 36-year-old citizen of the United Arab Emirates.6 Mahnoodr attempted to smuggle baby leopards, panthers, a bear, and monkeys onto his departing first class fight. According to Steven Galster of the Freeland Foundation, “there were two leopards, two panthers, an Asiatic black bear and two macaque monkeys – all about the size of puppies”. Galster said it appeared the animals had been sedated and placed in flat cages to minimize their movement. Some of the animals were packed into canisters with air holes.
Endangered animals are trafficked to satisfy a number of markets. While the primary market is to satisfy the demands of traditional medicine, such as Chinese medicine, other driving forces include the conspicuous consumption of flesh and rare animals sold as exotic pets. One less reported aspect of the Thai animal trade is the sale of exotic animal species for use in the tourism industry. These types of tourist animal attractions offer travelers an intimate experience with exotic and rare wildlife. According to Wildlife Friends of Thailand, an organization devoted to animal rescue, the majority of animals supplied to Thai tourism are poached from Thai forests. Once sold, they are often mistreated and frequently drugged in order to keep them passive for the tourists. According to the WFT, as an example of their determination, poachers will kill “a complete family just to obtain one baby gibbon”.7
1. U.S. Embassy Bangkok press release, “Freeland Foundation to Combat Wildlife Trafficking in Asia,”retrieved August 7, 2011, from: http//:www.Bangkok.us embassy.gov/news/press/2011/nrot021.html
3. Bangkok Post, “One dead tiger, One Million Bhat,” retrieved August 20, 2011 from: http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/learning-from-news/244258/one-dead-tiger-one-million-baht
Chution, Savini, (Biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society) telephone interview by author, August 2011
6. Bangkok Post,“Man Nabbed with Bear, Panthers in Bag,” retrieved August 17, 2011 from: http://www.frugal-cafe.com/public_html/frugal-blog/frugal-cafe-blogzone/2011/05/15/animals-in-suitcases-wildlife-smuggler-caught-at-bangkok-airport-with-baby-leopards-panthers-bear-monkeys-video/
7. Wildlife Friends of Thailand, “Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre,” retrieved August 20, 2011 from: http://www.wfft.org/GRC.html
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