Thailand wins three U.N. environmental protection awards

The men and women fighting to protect Thailand’s wildlife won three 2018 Asia Environmental Awards from the United Nations last week for arresting a major wildlife trafficker, busting an influential poacher, and developing techniques to better identify wildlife smugglers and their criminal networks.

U.N Environment (UNEP) recognized Thailand with awards in the categories of Impact, Innovation, and garnered a Special Commendation in a ringing endorsement for the work of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Customs Department, and the Royal Thai Police.

“Humanity is the guardian of the natural world, and these winners are at the tip of the spear. Without their commitment to justice, our environmental laws and safeguards are a paper tiger,” said Dechen Tsering, regional director for Asia and the Pacific for UN Environment. “It is their qualities of courage, dedication, and integrity we need.”

The Thai team earned the Impact award for arresting Boonchai Bach, a man described by law enforcement officials as a kingpin of a wildlife smuggling syndicate operating between Africa and Asia. He was charged with the smuggling of 14 rhino horns worth over $1 million from Africa into Thailand. The case also implicated a Thai official and a Chinese and a Vietnamese courier, the Thai police said.

Thai police said that Boonchai headed a vast trafficking network over the Thai borders.  Freeland Foundation, an anti-trafficking group, said he and his family ran a criminal syndicate that has smuggled poached ivory, rhino horns, pangolins, tigers, lions and other rare and endangered species for over a decade.

UNEP gave its Innovation award to the Royal Thai Customs’ Investigation and Suppression Division III for its advanced profiling technique to identify wildlife smugglers traveling to Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Freeland, TRAFFIC and other organizations, along with important allies such as the United States, have worked closely with Thailand in recent years to develop more cutting-edge techniques to identify and arrest wildlife smugglers. In recent years, the number of arrests has risen dramatically.

The Special Commendation was awarded to Wichien Chinnawong, the chief of the Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province near the border with Myanmar.

Early this year, Wichien led a small team of park rangers that found a local tycoon and underlings who had been illegally hunting wildlife in the sanctuary. They found the skin and other remains of a rare and endangered black leopard that the tycoon allegedly shot and was cooking.

Wichien refused attempts to bribe him to look the other way, drop the case, and has withstood alleged threats to his job and life for doggedly pursuing the case.

UNEP said it had chosen Wichien because of his outstanding performance in protecting wild animals from those who would seek to keep them for fun or financial gain.