Illegal wildlife trade is far more terrifying than just snakes on a plane
Last week, an Iranian man was stopped by customs officials trying to smuggle 50 live snakes on to a plane in Bangkok, hidden in rolled-up socks in his hand luggage. The "snakes on a plane" headlines have once again focused attention on Thailand as an international hub for the illegal trade in wildlife, a trade worth a staggering £6bn a year.
The arrest is the latest in a number of high-profile detentions at the Thai airport. However, local environmental organisations have expressed frustration that police enforcement remains inadequate to tackle a trade that is decimating local ecosystems, hastening the extinction of scores of endangered animals and plundering the resources of developing countries for profits abroad.
In May, a passenger bound for Dubai was found to have a gibbon, an Asiatic black bear cub, a marmoset and four baby leopards in his carry-on baggage. Having got through the security checks he was reportedly only stopped after one of the leopards made a "muffled cry" at the departure gate. Other recent seizures also include a drugged tiger cub hidden among stuffed toy animals and three suitcases full of 200 live animals – containing everything from endangered tortoises to pythons, boa constrictors and a parrot.
While superficially promising, these headline arrests actually reveal a deeper problem with law enforcement. The smugglers involved in these cases had not engaged in shadowy criminal networks to procure their animals, they had simply gone shopping in Bangkok's sprawling outdoor Chatuchak market. One local environmental organisation is so frustrated by this state of affairs that it has published an open letter questioning how "wildlife can be openly sold every weekend" just down the road from the offices of the Thai authorities who regulate the illegal trade.
With rare native creatures, a large international airport and long land borders with its south-east Asian neighbours, Thailand is an attractive hub for both the import and export of rare animals. Live lizards, snakes and big mammals are increasingly in demand in the Middle East as exotic pets, while tiger bones and bear gall bladders are exported to China, Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Chinese medicine. Acres, which campaigns to stop the illegal wildlife trade, recently ran an undercover operation in Singapore which found tiger parts for sale at just under half of all jewellery and antiques shops visited. The organisation runs public awareness campaigns to challenge such cultural traditions – something that is essential in tackling the demand side of the trade.
Thailand has also become a major importer in the illegal ivory trade, mostly from Africa. Ivory from domestic Thai elephants can be sold legally – so illegal ivory is taken to Thailand to be "laundered" into the legal domestic market. Thai customs have seized over 8.5 tons of ivory since 2009 – equating to more than 1,000 elephant tusks. Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, explains that Thailand now hosts the world's largest unregulated domestic ivory market, and argues that "Thailand needs to close [this] domestic ivory loophole once and for all".
Corruption and insufficient sentencing deterrents also create regulation difficulties. Freeland Foundation, an international conservation and human rights organisation based in Bangkok, has described official corruption as the biggest problem that it faces in tackling the trade. A recent example is the Dubai-bound passenger arrested with the four baby leopards. Immediately after his detention the police reported they had been politically pressured to not charge him. The smuggler's client was allegedly a Dubai prince with connections to influential Thai politicians. He was released on bail and promptly escaped the country.
Freeland Foundation director Steven Galster remarked: "Over the past six years we've seen only one trafficker go to prison. And that was because the prosecutor [...] happened to be an animal lover." While police may make low-level arrests, those ultimately controlling the trade have repeatedly gone unpunished.
A draft law to increase trafficking sentences was proposed eight years ago – but has still not passed. The Thai politician and human rights and environment activist Kraisak Choonhavan admits that previously, with "so many urgent laws to consider, something like [a new] wildlife law just never saw the light of day". However, with the recent elections providing a large democratic mandate and signalling an end to the political instability of recent years, there is real potential for a new political emphasis on tackling the illegal trade in wildlife. Without this political will, Thailand and south-east Asia risk a massive and irreversible loss of biodiversity as natural resources continue to be plundered overseas.