Major wildlife trafficker arrested on World Wildlife Day

3_ 24616119270_483894aa37_cThe Thai authorities marked World Wildlife Day last week by arresting a high-level wildlife trafficker in Bangkok that the authorities had been investigating for over one year and who is believed to be a major figure in a transnational syndicate that smuggles endangered tortoises throughout the region.

The arrest of the trafficker, whose name was not yet released to the public, came several days after the arrest at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok of an Indian national with a suitcase full of the tortoises. The Thai suspect has a history of drugs and weapons violations and is believed to be a senior trafficker, said Steven Galster, Director of Freeland, an anti-trafficking organization.

The arrest was the work of the Royal Thai Police Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Division (NRECD), Royal Thai Customs, Anti-Money Laundering Organization (AMLO), and the ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN). Freeland provided regional wildlife trafficking analysis as part of the investigation on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-sponsored Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking (ARREST) Program.

Both arrests also came just days after Freeland held trainings for over 240 airline and airport staff to help them identify common smuggling methods and routes, signs of trafficking and effective first-response actions.

“Extensive criminal networks regularly move large volumes of illegal wildlife and wildlife products through global commercial transport systems – including flights and airports. Participants at the Wildlife Friendly Skies workshop, including flight attendants, cargo handlers and customs officers, learned more about what they can do to combat this crime,’’ Galster said.

Because Thailand is a transportation hub in Asia with a huge volume of passenger and cargo traffic through its airports, wildlife traffickers often select the Kingdom as a transit country to smuggle endangered species to markets around the region. Traffickers moving ivory and other contraband from Africa to China, Viet Nam, Laos and other countries frequently attempt to smuggle them through Thailand. But traffickers within the region, such as those smuggling pangolins, sea turtles and tiger parts also use Thailand as a transit point.

“Everything from individual tiger cubs stuffed in suitcases ivory tusks and rhino horns concealed in cargo containers pass through international boundaries routinely. Live reptiles, birds and small primates are often intercepted while being smuggled, invariably in cruel, inhumane conditions,” Galster said.

Thailand, however, has taken an increasingly tough stance against this transnational criminal activity in recent years. The Kingdom was a leading force in establishing ASEAN-WEN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Wildlife Enforcement Network) in Bangkok in 2005.

Thailand, through ASEAN-WEN, partners closely with the USAID and civil society anti-trafficking organizations such as Freeland and Malaysia-based TRAFFIC. All have provided technical assistance and trainings to Thailand. The continuous trainings have sharpened the skills of Thai law enforcement and transportation officials and staff.

In early 2015, Thailand made its largest-ever seizures of African ivory transiting the country. Customs at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok confiscated 65 pounds of ivory from a Vietnamese national traveling from Angola to Cambodia. That same month, four tons of ivory were seized after it was shipped from the Democratic Republic of Congo and was confiscated in Bangkok Port on its way to Laos.

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