When Thailand arrested suspected animal trafficking kingpin Boonchai Bach last year, it was hailed by animal rights groups as a watershed day and a chance to unravel Hydra, the vast Vietnamese trafficking ring he was believed to be part of.
One animal welfare group compared Mr. Boonchai’s capture to “catching one of the Corleones.”
And, just like the Godfather, Mr. Boonchai walked out of a Thai courtroom this year as a free man, after the prosecution’s key witness changed his testimony on the stand. Some have speculated he was threatened or bribed.
Whatever the cause, Mr. Boonchai is the latest to escape animal trafficking charges — and a loud cry for more serious international efforts to bring down the $23 billion illicit trade in animals.
If animal welfare or environmental concerns aren’t good enough reasons, those calling for action say, there are plenty of others.
The profits available, the low risk of capture or prosecution, the relatively weak penalties and the overlapping networks have turned the animal trade into a serious source of revenue for cartels that also engage in smuggling people, drugs or weapons. Even terrorist organizations have become attracted to the market’s lucrative rewards and low risk of serious penalties.
Police, who accused Mr. Boonchai of smuggling ivory, rhino horns and pangolins, linked him with importing drugs into Thailand and say his brother has ties to the region’s prostitution market.
Thai prosecutors say they may need international help to make improvements.
“I think we don’t really investigate in detail wildlife crime in Thailand because, in general, people don’t see the wildlife case as an important case,” said Teerat Limpayara, a prosecutor with the Thai attorney general’s office. “It is not like life or death of a human, so we would like to put more importance on how wildlife trafficking is related to other crimes like terrorists or organized crime.”
Mr. Teerat told The Washington Times that prosecutors are hampered by cultural challenges.
For one thing, Thai prosecutors don’t have the power to monitor investigations and often see a case for the first time when they receive the file. In the U.S., prosecutors can work hand in hand with investigators to put together a case.
U.S. officials say Thailand is considered a major transit point for the illicit animal trade in Southeast Asia.
“Because of their physical location, they are the keystone of Southeast Asia,” said Mark Romley, a U.S. Justice Department resident legal adviser based in Laos. “But they are also key because they are a leader in the region. The combination of talent and the work they’ve been willing to do to date puts them in a good place to help us out in that region.”
Thai authorities have made two major raids this year. In one, investigators seized nearly 3,000 snakes, including cobras, that were being smuggled out of the country. A month later, authorities recovered four tigers’ bones and 1,666 pieces of bear claws, which are used in jewelry.
Thai authorities in December 2017 arrested Kampanart Chaiyamart, who was accused of trafficking pangolins, orangutans, elephant ivory and rare animals from Thailand to China. Prosecutors say he laundered $35 million through 28 accounts.
“Gradually, animal trafficking has become transnational organized crime,” said Chatchom Akapin, director general of the international affairs department in the Thai attorney general’s office. “I emphasize organized crime because one or two people cannot do this crime.”
But bringing the cases to conclusion is proving difficult.
Mr. Kampanart is not believed to have appeared before a judge over the 2017 charges.
Thai prosecutors spent a week in Washington in July to try to improve their skills in tracking the flow of money from wildlife crimes, which welfare groups said is the key to making cases.
“Following the money helps you identify the kingpins,” said D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “You want to bust the middlemen, but if you don’t take out the bigwigs, these guys just reload.”
Roughly a dozen Thai officials met with the Justice Department’s sections on money laundering and asset recovery and computer crime and intellectual property to discuss cutting-edge investigative techniques to track how wildlife funds are laundered.
“I can’t think of a case that my team and I made without doing a financial investigation. That’s how we find the hunters, and that’s how we even get an idea of how many illegal shipments have happened, is by seeing how many transactions there were,” said Mr. Romley, who oversees the department’s efforts to combat animal trafficking in Southeast Asia.
Thailand is ahead of some other countries because police have an anti-money laundering unit, but its investigators are spread thin.
International cooperation has improved, animal welfare specialists say, but hurdles remain.
Susan Lieberman, vice president international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said authorities in some countries hold press conferences to show off seizures of animal parts but go no further.
“The press gets photos, but there is no prosecution and it just becomes the cost of doing business to cartels,” she said. “They may bust the mule but not the person who paid them. It takes a long time to build a solid case against someone who is a real criminal.”
Ms. Lieberman said low penalties and lack of flashy headlines mean prosecutors forgo animal trafficking cases to focus other crimes.
Thai prosecutors say they are frustrated with some neighboring countries, though they declined to name them.
Officials in the U.S. and Thailand said a dedicated wildlife crimes unit similar to the one operated by the Justice Department could help reduce the impact. It’s just a matter of getting officials to see the benefits.
“All of these countries have investigators who could do a drug case, It’s just getting them to realize this wildlife case will impact their country ultimately,” Mr. Romley said. “Even if it doesn’t hurt people, it will erode the government institutions just the same as any other crime would.”
The Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division hosted the study tour with the Thai prosecutors. It was the first focused on wildlife trafficking with the Thai government.
ODPAT, with funding primarily from the State Department, works with countries to enhance their criminal justice system and bolster their prosecution of complex crimes. These partnerships serve to combat transnational crime.
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