Thailand among nations tracing wildlife trafficking money

Thailand has been praised as one of just a handful of nations using money laundering investigations and freezing assets in pursuit of wildlife trafficking syndicates, an approach international experts said is an advanced and effective technique in shutting down transnational syndicates.

The acknowledgment by conservationists and anti-trafficking groups came after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new resolution last week on fighting wildlife trafficking that was approved by all 193 member states. It recognizes that wildlife crime has links to fraud, racketeering, money laundering and other forms of financial crime, and includes commitments to utilize new technologies to counter wildlife crimes.

The aim of those commitments is “to pick the pocket of the wildlife traffickers and try to freeze them in their tracks,” said Steve Galster, founder of the wildlife protection and anti-trafficking organization Freeland Foundation, which is headquartered in Bangkok.

“We’ve gone beyond kicking down the door and looking for animals in the back room, to looking at who’s the kingpin, who’s the transportation coordinator, who ultimately is the vulnerable node in the syndicate without whom the syndicate wouldn’t work,” Galster told The Associated Press wire service.

A report published in July by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering said that only about a dozen governments out of 45 in the region are using financial investigations to build cases against traffickers, including seizing assets and filing money laundering charges.

Among the nations using financial investigation techniques is Thailand, the report noted. The Kingdom is a regional transshipment hub for wildlife traffickers because of its transportation and logistics links, the sheer volume of shipments and cargo, and corruption – a persistent problem in many countries in the region, but one that Thailand has been battling and showing improved results.

While those factors make Thailand a preferred destination for traffickers smuggling wildlife and wildlife items, the Kingdom is dedicated to fighting the illegal trade and has been turning up the heat on criminal syndicates.

Thailand works with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a founding member and driving force of ASEAN-WEN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network). Last week Thailand and USAID jointly organized and hosted the 4th Regional Dialogue on Combating Trafficking of Wild Fauna and Flora. Law enforcement officials from around the world attended the event in Bangkok.

Freeland and other anti-trafficking groups have collaborated on investigations, raids and seizures with Thai law enforcement.

Cathy Haenlein, the author of a report on wildlife trafficking by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, told the AP that for too long, nations have ignored the financial side of the crimes. Traffickers are using crypto-currency markets to make illicit bulk trades, or stockpiling durable animal parts like pangolin scales or elephant tusks in an attempt to corner the market, she said.

Some countries, such as Thailand, have already realized this, while others are becoming aware and beginning to address the issue. “It’s very clear that it is about the money,” she said.