BANGKOK - Thai wildlife officers have arrested a Malaysian man attempting to smuggle two baby orangutans, 51 tortoises and six raccoons into the kingdom across its southern border, officials said Thursday.
The animals were packed into plastic boxes and suitcases loaded into Ismail Bin Ahmad's car, officials said.
The 63-year-old was stopped Wednesday as he was attempting to drive through a border checkpoint in Thailand's southern Songkhla province -- part of an insurgency-torn region known as a funnel for drugs, weapons and other contraband.
"The suspect said he was hired to transport the animals from (neighbouring) Perlis state in Malaysia to Hat Yai (in Thailand) for 1,000 baht ($33 dollars)," Prach Kongthong, a wildlife officer manning the checkpoint, told AFP.
The tiny orangutans were less than six months old and will be transferred to a local shelter, he added.
Orangutans are native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra but they are often illegally smuggled throughout mainland Southeast Asia, either for private zoos or as pets.
Most of the 51 rescued reptiles were Indian star tortoises -- an endangered species from South Asia coveted for its star-patterned shell.
Thailand has long served as a transit hub for wildlife products bound for major markets like Vietnam and China, where exotic animal parts are often used in folk medicines.
Thai police frequently seize trafficked animals and wildlife products but they usually only catch low-level couriers, leaving the smuggling kingpins behind the lucrative trade at large.
In December Thai police rescued two baby orangutans in a sting operation that saw undercover officers pose as buyers over a mobile phone messaging app.