Police target private zoos in tiger protection blitz

tigers1With the goal of eliminating the illegal and underground trade in tigers and tiger parts, Thai authorities have begun conducting a nationwide crackdown on private zoos that wildlife conservationists have claimed are illicitly engaged in tiger trafficking.

The crackdown follows the raid last month on the infamous “Tiger Temple” in Kanchanaburi that saw police and wildlife officials seize 147 tigers and transfer them to sanctuaries. Officials also uncovered a slaughterhouse on the temple grounds with tiger parts and fetuses, strong evidence that the temple had been engaging in illegal trafficking.

Wildlife conservation advocates have been alleging that other private zoos in Thailand are also involved in trafficking tigers and tiger parts to the lucrative markets of China, Laos and Viet Nam. Officials have heeded their message and began inspecting several private zoos, tiger parks and breeders last week.

In response, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said that private zoos will now be banned from breeding tigers. Tuanjai Noochdamrong, director of the department’s Wildlife Conservation Office, said the department is concerned about the uncontrolled growth of captive tigers in private zoos and links those zoos may have to the illegal wildlife trade.

She said the office is collecting the DNA of about 1,500 tigers in private zoos to determine whether there had been any illegal trading among them.

Colonel Montri Paencharoen, deputy chief at the Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police, said that several zoos raising Bengal tigers were found to be involved in an illegal tiger-trading ring. He also said he suspected that some Thai officials may be involved in the trade.

“Some Asian people believe tiger meat is a source of prowess. That’s why tiger meat is popular and why a number of Thais with licenses to operate a zoo are [unlawfully] supplying the tiger meat to the oversea market. We’ve already secured information about this [tiger meat smuggling] gang,” Montri said.

Thailand has been praised globally for it successful efforts at protecting tigers in the wild, with Scientific American magazine in February calling Thailand “the one safe haven” for wild tigers in Southeast Asia. The magazine noted that the number of tigers in the wild in the Kingdom has risen from 35 to about 90 over the past decade.

Tigers are an extremely endangered species with less than 4,000 estimated to be living in the wild across Asia, their only natural habitat.

Freeland, an activist group that focuses on fighting human trafficking and wildlife trafficking, has said that transnational gangs involved in wildlife smuggling are often also involved in other trafficking crimes, such as narcotics, weapons and people.