Biggest Asian wildlife traffickers are untouchable

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BANGKOK (AP) - Squealing tiger cubs stuffed into carry-on bags. Luggage packed with hundreds of squirming tortoises, elephant tusks, even water dragons and American paddlefish. Officials at Thailand’s gateway airport proudly tick off the illegally trafficked wildlife they have seized over the past two years.

But Thai and foreign law enforcement officers tell another story: Officials working-hand-in-hand with traffickers ensure that other shipments through Suvarnabhumi International Airport are whisked off before they even reach customs inspection.

It’s a murky mix. A 10-fold increase in wildlife law enforcement actions, including seizures, has been reported in the past six years in Southeast Asia. Yet, the trade’s Mr. Bigs, masterful in taking advantage of pervasive corruption, appear immune to arrest and continue to orchestrate the decimation of wildlife in Thailand, the region and beyond.

And Southeast Asia’s honest cops don’t have it easy.

“It is very difficult for me. I have to sit among people who are both good and some who are corrupt, says Chanvut Vajrabukka, a retired police general. “If I say, `You have to go out and arrest that target,’ some in the room may well warn them,’” says Chanvut, who now advises ASEAN-WEN, the regional wildlife enforcement network.

Several kingpins, says wildlife activist Steven Galster, have recently been confronted by authorities, “but in the end, good uniforms are running into, and often stopped by bad uniforms. It’s like a bad Hollywood cop movie.

“Most high-level traffickers remain untouched and continue to replace arrested underlings with new ones,” says Galster, who works for the FREELAND Foundation, an anti-trafficking group.

Galster, who earlier worked undercover in Asia and elsewhere, heaps praise on the region’s dedicated, honest officers because they persevere knowing they could be sidelined for their efforts.

Recently, Lt. Col. Adtaphon Sudsai, a highly regarded, outspoken officer, was instructed to lay off what had seemed an open-and-shut case he cracked four years ago when he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin.

This led him to Mrs. Daoreung Chaimas, alleged by conservation groups to be one of Southeast Asia’s biggest tiger dealers. Despite being arrested twice, having her own assistants testify against her and DNA testing that showed two cubs were not offsprings from zoo-bred parents as she claimed, Daoreung remains free and the case may never go to the prosecutor’s office.

“Her husband has been exercising his influence,” says Adtaphon, referring to her police officer spouse. “It seems that no policeman wants to get involved with this case.” The day the officer went to arrest her the second time, his transfer to another post was announced.

“Maybe it was a coincidence,” the colonel says.

In another not uncommon case, a former Thai police officer who tried to crack down on traders at Bangkok’s vast Chatuchak Market got a visit from a senior police general who told him to “chill it or get removed.”

“I admit that in many cases, I cannot move against the big guys,” Chanvut, the retired general, notes. “The syndicates like all organized crime are built like a pyramid. We can capture the small guys but at the top they have money, the best lawyers, protection. What are we going to do?”

Chanvut’s problems are shared by others in Southeast Asia, the prime funnel for wildlife destined for the world’s No. 1 consumer _ China _ where many animal parts are consumed in the belief they have medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties.

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