Thailand: gateway to a paradise being lost

Luggage packed with squealing tiger cubs, squirming tortoises, elephant tusks, even water dragons and American paddlefish. Some shipments at Thailand's gateway airport never reach customs inspection.

A Thai customs officer shows a gharial, a type of crocodile native to India, at a news conference on wildlife seized in Bangkok.
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BANGKOK // Squealing tiger cubs stuffed into carry-on bags. Luggage packed with hundreds of squirming tortoises, elephant tusks, even water dragons and American paddlefish.

Workers at Thailand's gateway airport proudly tick off the illegally trafficked wildlife they have seized over the past two years.

But Thai and foreign law enforcement officers tell the other side of the story: officials working hand-in-hand with the traffickers ensure that other shipments through Suvarnabhumi International Airport are whisked off before they even reach customs inspection.

It is a murky mix. 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 big shots, masters of taking advantage of pervasive corruption, appear immune to arrest and continue to orchestrate the destruction of wildlife in Thailand, the region and beyond.

The region's honest cops do not have it easy.

"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 Chanvut, who now advises Asean-Wen, the regional wildlife enforcement network.

Several kingpins, said the wildlife activist Steven Galster, had 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 continue to replace arrested underlings with new ones," said Mr Galster, who works for the Freeland Foundation, an anti-trafficking group.

Mr Galster, who earlier worked undercover in Asia and elsewhere, heaps praise on the region's dedicated, honest officers because they persevere knowing they could be sidelined for their efforts.

Recently, Lt Col Adtaphon Sudsai, a highly regarded, outspoken officer, was instructed to lay off what had seemed an open-and-shut case he cracked when four years ago he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin, a nocturnal anteater.

This led him to 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 showing two cubs were not offspring from zoo-bred parents as she had claimed, Ms Daoreung remains free and the case may never go to the prosecutor's office.

"Her husband has been exercising his influence," said Lt Col Adtaphon, 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," he said.

In another common type of case, a former police officer who tried to clamp down on traders at Bangkok's vast Chatuchak Market, had a visit from a senior police general who told him to "chill it or get removed".

"I admit that in many cases I cannot move against the big guys," Mr Chanvut, the retired general, noted. "The syndicates, like all organised crime, 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 going to do?"

Mr Chanvut's problems are shared by others in South East Asia, the prime funnel for wildlife destined for China, the world's primary consumer, where many animal parts are consumed in the belief they have medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties.

Vietnam was singled out last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature as the top destination country for the highly prized rhino horn.

Tens of thousands of birds, mostly parrots and cockatoos plucked from the wild, are being imported from the Solomon Islands into Singapore, often touted as one of Asia's least corrupt nations, 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 was widely known that the Pacific Ocean islands have virtually no breeding facilities.

Laos, meanwhile, continues to harbour Vixay Keosavang who has been linked by the South African media to a rhino smuggling ring.

The 54-year-old former soldier and provincial official reportedly has close ties to senior government figures in Laos and Vietnam.

Thai and foreign enforcement agents, who insist on anonymity s most work undercover, have said they have accumulated unprecedented details about the gangs, which are increasingly linked to drug and human-trafficking syndicates.

They claim a key Thai smuggler, who runs a shipping company, has a number of law enforcement officers in his pocket, allowing him to traffic rhino horns, ivory and tiger parts to China. He frequently entertains his facilitators at a restaurant in his office building.

According to the agents, Chinese buyers, informed of incoming shipments, fly down to Bangkok, staying at hotels pinpointed by the agents around the Chatuchak Market, where endangered species are openly sold.

There they seal deals with middlemen and freight operators.

The sources say that when they report such investigations, seizures are either made for public relations, sink into a "black hole" or the information is leaked to the wrongdoers.

Such a tip-off from someone at Bangkok airport customs allowed a trafficker to abort shipment of a live giraffe with powdered rhino horn believed to be implanted inside it.

"The 100,000 passengers moving through this airport from around the world every day are oblivious to the fact that they are standing in one of the world's hottest wildlife trafficking zones," said Mr Galster.

Officials interviewed at the airport, one of Asia's busiest, acknowledged that corruption existed, but downplayed its extent and said measures were being taken to root it out.

Mr Chanvut said corruption was not the sole culprit, pointing out the many agencies that often do not cooperate or share information. The police, national parks department, customs, immigration, the military and Cites each have a role to play at Bangkok's airport.

With poor communication between police and immigration, for example, a trader whose passport has been seized at the airport can obtain a forged one and slip across a land border a few days later.

"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, Traffic'sdeputy director in the region. "How often is anyone arrested? They just run off, they must be the fastest people on Earth."

Chalida Phungravee, who heads the cargo customs bureau at Suvarnabhumi, said the sheer scale makes her job difficult. The airport each year handles 45 million passengers and 3 million tonnes of cargo, of which about 3 per cent is X-rayed on arrival. The main customs warehouse is the size of more than two dozen football pitches.

But seizures are made, she said, including boxes of tusks - the remnants of some 50 felled elephants - aboard a recent Kenya Airlines flight, declared as handicrafts and addressed to a fake company.

"We have cut down a lot on corruption. It still exists but remains minimal," she said, citing recent computerisation that has created a space - dubbed "the Green Line" - between customs officials, cargo and traffickers.

Mr Galster said that unlike in the past, traffickers are no longer guaranteed safe passage, describing a daily battle at Suvarnabhumi with "undercover officers monitoring corrupt ones and smugglers trying to outwit them all".

He said such increased enforcement efforts in the region have slowed the decline of endangered species "but there is still a crash going on. If corruption is not tackled soon, you can say goodbye to Asia's tigers, elephants and a whole host of other animals".