The Nation

CRIME

Asia's wildlife police battle corruption, market forces

Thai politician put pressure on police to free suspect

When it comes to cracking down on the lucrative trade in South-East Asian wildlife, it's a jungle out there.Take the case of Noor Mahmood, a 36-year-old United Arab Emirates national who was arrested at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on May 13 with four baby leopards, one marmoset, one gibbon and an Asiatic black bear cub in his hand luggage.Mahmood, who had somehow managed to get his animal-stuffed hand luggage past airport security and x-ray scanners undetected, was nabbed by Thai wildlife task force police at the departure gate as he was about to fly first class to Dubai on Emirates Airlines.Since his arrest, police said they have come under pressure by unnamed Thai politicians to release Mahmood before his scheduled court appearance on May 30.The UAE national, who stayed at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel while in Bangkok and is believed to be in the employ of a Dubai prince, reportedly bragged of close connections with a former Thai prime minister in a bid to secure his immediate release.So far police haven't budged."We are confident that Mahmood will be prosecuted under Thai law," said Colonel Kiattipong Khawsamang, deputy commander of the Natural Resources and Environmental Crimes Suppression Division.Prosecutions are rare for wildlife traffickers, and prison terms even rarer."Over the past six years we've seen only one trafficker go to prison. And that was because the prosecutor knew what he was doing and happened to be an animal lover," said Freeland Foundation director Steven Galster.Freeland, an organisation that fights against wildlife and human trafficking, has been working closely with South-East Asian police forces to crack down on the region's booming trade in endangered wildlife and animal parts since late 2005, with funding from the US Agency for International Development.The worldwide illicit trade in endangered species, protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) treaty, is estimated to generate 10 to 30 billion dollars a year, with 25 per cent of it passing through South-East Asia.Thailand, with its central location and good infrastructure, is known to be the main regional hub for the illicit trade.The country has also been at the forefront of regional efforts to crackdown on the business.In 2004, at a Cites annual conference in Bangkok, the Thai government proposed setting up the Association of South-East Asian Nations - Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-WEN). A year later, the network was launched at an Asean ministerial meeting.

Since the programme started, there has been a tenfold increase in wildlife enforcement cases, most of them seizures of animals or elephant tusks, according to Freeland.

In the past two years, there have been more arrests of drivers of the illicit cargos and even a few arrests of mid-level traffickers, but none of the bigwigs behind the trade.

"I would say that the number one problem we're running into with this programme across the whole region is corruption," Galster said.

And the corruption is usually of the untouchable variety. "They are running into other uniforms," Galster said.

For example, Thai police recently exposed what is believed to be the biggest animal trafficking ring in tigers and tiger parts being exported to China and Vietnam.

The case was the subject of a National Geographic television documentary recently released.

Although Thai authorities have arrested some lowly delivery boys in the tiger-trafficking ring, they were not able to touch the well-connected people behind the trade both in Thailand and Laos. Wildlife task forces are also up against market forces."The effectiveness of enforcement is increasing but so is the volume of the trade," said Peter Cutter, World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) regional director."The fact is the market is getting much more elite. There are higher prices being paid for this stuff all the time," he said.Ultimately, what is needed is tougher legislation against the trade in both the exporting and importing countries, but this will take time, Cutter acknowledged.If convicted by his Thai prosecutors, suspected wildlife trafficker Mahmood faces a maximum fine of Bt40,000 baht (US$1,333) and/or 4 years in jail. The fine is unlikely to deter would-be criminals who fly first class and stay at the Intercontinental.A draft law that would increase wildlife trafficking penalties has been on under review for the past eight years."We've had so many urgent laws to consider that something like the wildlife law just never saw the light of day," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a Thai member of parliament who has been backing the law.


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