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In another 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 official who told him to “chill it or get removed.”

“I admit that in many cases, I cannot move against the big guys,” Mr. Chanvut said. “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?”

China is top customer

His 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 eaten in the belief they have medicinal or aphrodisiac properties.

Most recently, a torrent of rhinoceros horn and elephant tusks has poured through China from Africa, which is suffering the greatest slaughter of these two endangered animals in decades.

Vietnam was singled out last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature as the top destination country for the highly prized rhino horn.

Tens of thousands of birds, mostly parrots and cockatoos plucked from the wild, are being imported from the Solomon Islands into Singapore in violation of an international convention on wildlife trade.

According to Traffic, the international body monitoring wildlife smuggling, the imported birds are listed as captive-bred even though it is widely known that the Pacific Ocean islands have virtually no breeding facilities.

Laos continues to harbor Vixay Keosavang, who has been linked by the South African press to a rhino-smuggling ring. The 54-year-old former soldier and provincial official is reported to have close ties to senior government officials in Laos and Vietnam.

Thai and foreign enforcement agents, who insist on anonymity because most work undercover, say they have accumulated unprecedented detailsof the gangs, which are increasingly linked to drug- and human-trafficking syndicates.

They say a key Thai smuggler, who runs a shipping company, has a gamut of law enforcement officers in his pocket, enabling him to traffic rhino horns, ivory and tiger parts to China. He frequently entertains his facilitators at a restaurant in his office building.

According to the agents, Chinese buyers, informed of incoming shipments, fly to Bangkok, staying at hotels pinpointed by the agents around the Chatuchak Market, where endangered species are sold openly. There they seal deals with known middlemen and freight operators.

The sources say that when they report such investigations, seizures are either made for “public relations,” sink into a “black hole” – or the information is leaked to the wrongdoers.

Officials interviewed at the airport, one of Asia’s busiest, acknowledge that corruption exists but insist measures are being taken to root it out.