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Thailand wildlife traffickers organized like mafia
Teflon kingpins, corrupt police outmaneuver step
Question of the Day
BANGKOK — Squealing tiger cubs stuffed into carry-on bags. Luggage packed with hundreds of squirming tortoises, elephant tusks, even water dragons and American paddle fish.
Officials at Thailand’s gateway airport proudly tick off the illegally trafficked wildlife they have seized over the past two years.
Thai and foreign law enforcement officers, however, 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 is a murky mix. A tenfold increase in wildlife law enforcement actions, including seizures, has been reported in the past six years in Southeast Asia.
Yet the ringleaders of the smuggling trade, masterful in taking advantage of pervasive corruption, appear immune to arrest and continue to orchestrate the decimation of wildlife in Thailand and beyond.
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,” said Chanvut Vajrabukka, a retired police general who advises ASEAN-WEN, the regional wildlife enforcement network. “If I say, ‘You have to go out and arrest that target,’ some in the room may well warn them.”
Good cops, bad cops
Several kingpins have been confronted recently 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,” said wildlife activist Steven Galster, who works for the Freeland Foundation, an anti-trafficking group. “Most high-level traffickers remain untouched and continue to replace arrested underlings with new ones.”
Mr. Galster, who earlier worked undercover in Asia and elsewhere, praised 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 had cracked four years earlier when he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin.
The investigation led him to Daoreung Chaimas, alleged by conservation groups to be one of Southeast Asia’s biggest tiger dealers. She has been arrested twice. Her own assistants have testified against her, and DNA testing showed two cubs were not offsprings from zoo-bred parents as she claimed.
Yet Mrs. Daoreung, the wife of a police officer, remains free, and the case may never go to the prosecutor’s office.
“Her husband has been exercising his influence,” said Lt. Col. Adtaphon. “It seems that no policeman wants to get involved with this case.”
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