SPECIAL REPORT:Wildlife trafficking: a global scourge
Law enforcement and prosecution seen improved over the years, but still one step behind trafficking.
As he opened the back door of a taxi in the parking lot of a department store in the heart of Bangkok, the “ordered items” he was to collect gave off high-pitched screams that pierced the air from the back seat.
The “items” were two baby orangutans hugging one another tightly, trembling and crying.
“I was just like … their voices were just like … pitched very high, and pierced my heart. And that’s when I said to myself that I would never leave you, wildlife and wildlife rescue,” said retired senior police officer Pol Maj Gen Petcharat Sangchai, who is now a law enforcement adviser for USAID Wildlife Asia, and a director of the Freeland Foundation.
It was two years ago that Petcaharat had just retired and volunteered himself to help some anti-wildlife trafficking organisations with his experience in legal matters.
With information from Africa, they discovered that an order had been made online for the two baby orangutans from Thailand. Petcharat and his colleagues from Freeland, as well as the police from the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division (Nepolice) began to track the sale.
They went undercover, acting as close friends of the informants, and finally made contact with the trader, who posted a photo of the two baby orangutans online for sale.
They finally made an appointment to receive the animals at the department store in downtown Bangkok and managed to seize the months-old orangutans from the trader.
The trader, however, is still free, as he has managed to elude an arrest warrant.
For Petcharat, the two baby orangutans are the most recent concrete evidence that wildlife trafficking still exists, and is even more complicated as criminals become more sophisticated in trans-national crimes with the help of new technologies, fully utilising the internet and social media.
As a former senior police officer, Petcharat again witnesses how prosecution is a step behind this illegal activity, which is widely dubbed by anti-wildlife trafficking advocates as “low risks, high profits”.
Courtesy of TRAFFIC/ Photo credit/ Martin Harvey WWF-Canon
Nobody is certain when wildlife trafficking first evolved to an international level, but according to conservationists and anti-wildlife trafficking experts who have been following the issue for decades, the activity now possesses elements of trans-national organised crime.
Monica Zavagli, wildlife senior project officer at TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, said trafficking is ranked as the fourth most serious transnational organised crime globally. Its value is estimated so far at Bt850 billions, after drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.
“The UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) says that organised crime is not just about rigid mafia-type groups. Any pattern of profit-motivated, serious criminal activity is considered organised crime, and nearly all transnational wildlife trafficking fulfils these criteria,” said Zavagli.
Zavagli gave an example of the large-scale illegal ivory shipments. By passing through multiple countries, using multiple methods, and driven by people in small groups or individuals playing particular roles to get the shipment from one point to the next and onto a final destination, these could match the description, she said.
Organised transnational wildlife crime, she said, has been present in Southeast Asia for a long time. Generally, the region plays the role of a transit, consumer, plus source region for various wildlife, parts and products, while Africa is principally identified as the prime source of those products.
The activity is also widely perceived as being more complicated and sophisticated. Traffic’s seizure analysis for rhino horn between 2010 and 2017 has demonstrated that over time smuggling routes became more convoluted with multiple transit points to avoid detection.
Zavagli noted that greater transport connectivity worldwide makes it easier for wildlife criminals to go undetected. Likewise social media and online platforms make it easier for criminals to protect their identity, she said.
Petch Manopawitr, a former deputy of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in Southeast Asia, and a writer of the article “Illegal Wildlife Trade, a Never Ending Battle”, published in Sarakadee Magazine 15 years ago, has also observed a similar trend of wildlife trafficking.
From his article, which investigated wildlife trades across the border, Petch has witnessed the trend shift as far as Africa, where some key animals - elephants, rhinos, and even pangolins - have been hunted to a critical rate within the past five to 10 years, despite the fact that the population of these animals has slowly recovered from the plunge from 1970 to 1980.
“It’s what conservationists called an era of wildlife poaching crisis again. In the past, the activity would be just local, but as demands are growing across the continents, we now see people are willing to invest heavily in the business, even with dangerous weapons equipped to hunt the animals. And that’s why we see African elephants being hunted massively with heavy weapons being used,” said Petch.
Petch said the changing trend in wildlife trafficking has a lot to do with the growth of new economies such as China. As their economies are growing, the demand for wild animals for consumption is growing in parallel following some traditional beliefs or new fashionable trends.
New technology, such as online sales and communication or social media, has exacerbated the situation, as it has become a critical tool to help expand the market to new consumers because of its easy accessibility.
Zavagli also sees a correlation between Asian growing economies and the increasing demand for wildlife products to feed a demand for luxury goods, trophies and trinkets, traditional medicine, and the pet industry.
The decline in the population of some Asian species is also adding more pressure on wildlife from other regions, such as Africa.
The bottom line, says Zavagli, is that wildlife trafficking is still perceived as a high profit, low risk business.
Courtesy of TRAFFIC/ Photo credit/ Brent Stirton, National Geographic
Having realised the situation, a number of agencies working on transnational crime have added wildlife crime as part of their new assignments, including UNODC and Interpol.
Asean itself in 2015 elevated wildlife trafficking and timber crime as one of their priority areas.
Major countries like the US, meanwhile, have issued a new legislation, END (Eliminate, Neutralise Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking) Act 2016 to try to suppress wildlife trades, and the US has also issued a special order to enforce state law against transnational crimes.
Through its USAID Wildlife Asia, a number of projects have been introduced to deal with the consumption reduction aspect, legal enforcement and training, as well as enhancing joint political will among concerned regions.
Angela Hogg, USAID/RDMA Regional Environment Director, said the U.S. Government works closely with regional governments and civil society to host training workshops that its agencies such as USAID, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Department of Justice and its partners have hosted here in Southeast Asia and around the world.
“However, there is much more work to be done. Our biggest challenge is overcoming the view that wildlife trafficking is a lower priority crime,” said Hogg.
TRAFFIC’s Zavagli said overall one could say that the rate of detection, intelligence and investigations have improved over the years, and this has helped authorities better identify wildlife crime syndicates and nab key players - as in the high profile Boonchai Bach case.
The challenge now is prosecuting, securing sentences and dismantling these syndicates, in addition to ensuring that crimes are treated more severely, for example through anti-money laundering legislation.
Across the region there has been success at dealing with wildlife trafficking, but rarely against the heads of syndicates or key players in the organised crime groups.
Enforcement success is also not at the same level in all the Southeast Asian countries. In some countries the law is still not as strong as it could be, or full of loopholes, prosecution efforts are poor and conviction rates also low, she said.
In Hogg’s view, a regional approach is essential. As it’s known now that the problem is transnational, so this requires extensive cooperation. Legislation between countries in the region must be consistent and complementary, she said.
What are also needed in the process, Hogg pointed, are a more cohesive, coordinated and powerful global law enforcement community that sees criminal syndicate kingpins being sentenced and punished in meaningful ways, as well as introduction of stronger and more harmonized laws.
No less critical is a radical shift in public awareness, while on the other hand, better site protection for endangered species in both Africa and Asia is introduced.
Last but not least, she said, is the fact that wildlife trafficking should be elevated to the highest political levels across Asia and Africa particularly.
For a former law enforcement officer like Petcharat, there is also a lot to be done to advance prosecution within the country.
At a media workshop this week organised by USAID Wildlife Asia, Petcharat shared the challenges facing law enforcement, the first and foremost element against transnational wildlife trafficking.
The complexity of the crime, insufficient financial and human resources, equipment and training, as well as inadequate laws and a political will were cited.
Petcharat said that law enforcement agencies often do not follow up with arrests, stopping short with showcase seizures, while a number of judges are unfamiliar with wildlife crime.
No less critical is corruption, he said.
Pol Lt Col Atthapol Sudsai - a senior police officer at the Nepolice who have handled several high profile cases including illegal breeding of tigers - said the issue is still largely overlooked by law enforcers at many levels, and that’s also the reason why prosecution are often not followed up until “big fishes” get arrested.
To chase the masterminds, he said, requires a big budget, given the crime is organised globally.
In Thailand, wildlife trafficking is not separated from other crimes by law enforcers, and they are still much handled within Thai laws despite their trans-national nature, Atthapol said.
Petcharat said those involved in law enforcement have been trying to boost the capacity of law enforcers, working both within the country via regular training, as well as outside the country by forging collaboration among concerned law enforcers across the continents of Africa, Asia, and Asean.
The critical part, he said, is the awareness and the knowledge of these law enforcers to realise the seriousness of the crime. The offence is no less critical than drugs, and its trade circles are no different than the drug trade.
“People now are willing to take a risk as 1kg of rhino horn is more worthy than 1k of high value drugs,” said Petcharat.
Thailand, defined as a critical transit point, has attempted to amend its wildlife protection and preservation law to be in line with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in a hope that it would protect all exotic species.
A major loophole for the country to regulate exotic species is that there is no law in place to regulate possession. That means if criminals manage to bring the animals in, there would be no law against their possession here. That's why there are a number of cases of exotic wildlife possession but no arrests have been made, according to Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, director of the CITES office of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
Somkiat said the department tried to fix this loophole, coming up with the first draft amendment of the law in recent years but it does not yet truly reflected CITES’ regulation as it has introduced only one species list of the “regulated wild animals”.
CITES, he said, has three separate species lists with different levels of strictness and controls of trade.
The latest amendment version has tried to reflect those, and hopefully it will close the existing loophole of exotic wildlife possession as well as imports and exports through the country.
In addition, it will carry more hefty penalties, jail terms up to ten years, prompting it to be in line with the Anti-Participation in Transnational Organized Crime Act B.E. 2556, thus allowing prosecutors to play more roles in investigations, according to public prosecutor Teerat Limpayaraya from the Office of the Attorney General.
Teerat said those involving in prosecution are still not much aware of this kind of crime, but he hoped that the situation would be improved. The OAG, he cited, has started to engage more, coming up with an idea to set up a separate office to handle specifically environmental crimes, which is in line with the ongoing judicial reform.
Zavagli said the conservation community hopes that amendments will ensure that non-native species, particularly those listed on CITES will be listed in the law to ensure that illegal trade can be acted upon effectively.
She cited the recent case where Thailand took steps to list the African elephant under the new law that prohibits the trade in African ivory, which is consistent with international regulation.
It is time to ensure that the same level of protection is afforded to a wide range of other species, including those severely threatened by illegal trade, she said.
Petch said the new law has placed a new hope in the fight against transnational wildlife trafficking as it would provide a basis for concerned authorities in a more holistic manner.
He said consumer reduction, efforts at the source countries, and participation by communities are no less critical than any attempt in law enforcement and prosecution.
“We wish to see [more than increased] awareness in the field of anti-wildlife trafficking. It is participation and action at ground level, where people see the same benefit even it's put in monetary terms, and start to act, and that actually counts,” said Petch.