Thai police rescue smuggled orangutans, chase trafficking ring

Thailand’s police rescued two infant orangutans from smugglers last week in a sting operation that animal protection groups said could lead to a major strike against a powerful wildlife trafficking ring based in Southeast Asia, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Freeland Foundation said.

“Thailand has always been a leader in the region when it comes to combatting wildlife crime. The way that they act on public and NGO tip offs really helps,” said Matthew Prichett, Communications Director for Freeland Foundation, which worked with police on the case.

Acting on a tip off from overseas, the Thai police arrested a Thai man who had met undercover agents who contacted the smugglers through social media, which the ring was using to advertise their sale of the orangutans for $20,000. Police, posing as buyers, found the two infant orangutans, frightened and cowering, inside a covered white plastic basket that the suspect brought with him in a taxi.

“These types of arrests are very important because this is not a single case. It is something that is linked to much larger broader regional organized criminal syndicates that are smuggling these endangered species for profit,” Pritchett said.

“We need the social media companies and online marketplaces to do more so that this type of crime cannot flourishes online as it is at the moment. We also need the public to help more, if they see wildlife for sale, online or anywhere else for that matter, report it to police or trusted organizations like Freeland,’’ he added.

Few details of the case were released to the public because police believe they have gained leads that could result in a major blow to a wildlife trafficking syndicate operating in the region for many years. Globally, the illegal trade in wildlife and endangered species has been estimated by some analysts and law enforcement agencies to be worth more than the international narcotics business.

Thailand is a regional hub for wildlife trafficking because of its role as a transportation nexus. The sheer volume of people and cargo moving through the Kingdom present a steep challenge to anti-trafficking law enforcement. Most trafficked animals are destined for China, Viet Nam and other countries.

The Kingdom has, nonetheless, made strides against the traffickers. Police and customs officials have rescued and returned dozens of orangutans to Indonesia in recent years, in addition to seizing shipments of thousands of other animals that are endangered. Thailand also takes a lead role in ASEAN-WEN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, which works with law enforcement agencies from the United States and other nations to fight wildlife trafficking.

The only Great Ape native to Asia, orangutans once roamed all of Southeast Asia, but are now only found in the rainforests of Indonesia and parts of Malaysia. They are an endangered species, with fewer than 50,000 remaining compared to an estimated population of nearly a quarter of a million one century ago. Loss of habitat through development and fires for clearing forests have been the chief cause of their declining numbers.

“It is really saddening to see cases like this where you see two very young orangutans, probably only a few months old that have been taken away from their mother to be somebody’s pet. That is all that this is for, because somebody is greedy enough to think these types of animals will make a big pet. That means that these people are trading them for profit,” Pritchett said.