Thai crackdown on animal trafficking hits high officials as CITES nears
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2004:
BANGKOK–Delegates arriving in Bangkok for the 2004 meeting
of the parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species, to start on October 1, will find the clandestine animal
traffic thriving, despite a year-long crackdown.
The good news is that the crackdown is still underway,
reaching higher and farther into the web of corrupt officials who
have enabled Bangkok to persist as a global hub of illegal animal
Wildlife Conservation Office director Schwann Tunhikorn will
head the Thai CITES delegation, replacing Manop Laohapraser, who
was removed from his post in July 2004 for alleged misconduct in
authorizing the export of 100 tigers to the Sunya Zoo in China two
years earlier. The zoo is owned by the Si Racha Tiger Farm.
An investigation headed by National Intelligence Agency
director Joompol Manmai concluded that the tiger sale was a
commercial transaction, not a breeding and exhibition loan as
defined by CITES.
“Some believe [the tigers] were destined for human
consumption,” London Observer correspondent Mark Townsend reported
on September 13.
Townend alleged that Manop Lao-hapraser also arrived on the scene
recently after notorious wildlife dealer Leuthai Tiewchareun was
arrested near the Laotian border in possession of “the bloody carcass
of a huge Bengal tiger sawn clean in half.”
Leuthai Tiewchareun “was well-known to the authorities,”
wrote Townsend. “In November 2003, when police raided his home,
more than 20 pairs of bear paws lay beside piles of fresh tiger meat.
His deep-freeze contained the body of a baby orangutan from
Arrested then, Leuthai Tiewchareun jumped bail–but despite
that history, he was released on bail again just two hours after he
The tiger exports to China earlier brought the demotions of
Plodprasop Suraswadi, former permanent secretary of the Thai federal
ministry of natural resources and the environment, and Bhadharajaya
Rajani, former deputy chief of the forestry department.
Plodprasop Suraswadi, previously head of the fisheries
department, tried to defend his honor by suing former fisheries
department director general Thamrong Prakobbon for libel, over
remarks Thamrong reportedly made about earlier “fishy” dealings. The
case was promptly dismissed.
WildAid wins case
The quick judicial response was encouraging, as was the
August 16 ruling by Bangkok southern civil court judge Chayan
Tempiumof that the San Francisco-based group WildAid did not commit
libel in 2001 by publicizing the mercury content of sharks’ fins, as
discovered by the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technical
WildAid was enjoined from campaigning against eating sharks’
fins for three years after the Bangkok Association of Shark Fin
Restaurants filed the case in 2001. Following the verdict, WildAid
mounted a campaign against all wildlife consumption.
WildAid cofounder Stephen Galster hailed the verdict as a
victory for all nonprofit organizations working in Thailand.
Thai courts have not always been so friendly toward animal
and habitat advocates.
“Seeming co-operation between criminals and officials
continues to infuriate the country’s fledgling environmental
movement,” wrote Townsend. “A common complaint involves the
practice of raids on suspect smugglers being called off at the last
minute after a tip-off,” which could only come from someone aware of
the issuance of a warrant.
“Equally important,” Townsend reported, “is wildlife
dealers’ ability to operate with impunity. Hundreds have been
arrested, but all, like Leuthai, remain free. No one has received
the maximum four years in jail.”
The bad guys are fighting back, with both continuing
influence and violence.
“Attempts were even made to discredit Edwin Wiek, who runs
the acclaimed Wildlife Rescue Centre in Petchaburi, north of
Bangkok,” Townsend wrote. “Despite nursing 115 previously sickly
and malnourished animals, he has been arrested and charged on
grounds that have left supporters baffled. Other campaigners have
fared far worse.”
Townend mentioned two recent murders in Thailand and eight in
Cambodia that he believes may have involved attempts to stop wildlife
Thirty years after then-Thailand resident Shirley McGreal
founded the International Primate Protection League to expose
wildlife traffickers, King Bhumibol Aduladej, 77, and Queen
Sirikit, 74, in their 2002 and 2003 birthday speeches asked
Thailand to live up to pro-animal Buddhist traditions. Queen Sirikit
specifically asked that the illegal wildlife trade be ended.
A four-month amnesty that allowed people to register
possession of wildlife and wildlife products obtained without permits
expired in September 2003. Police Major General Sawake Pinsinchai
initiated the ongoing series of wildlife trafficking searches,
seizures, and arrests a few days later.
A parallel team was already hitting dog meat dealers. Dog
meat dealing, though illegal, had been tolerated among the
Vietnamese refugees of ethnic Cantonese background who introduced
dog-eating to Thailand in the 1970s. Near the Laotian border a
substantial illicit commerce had developed, exporting both dogs and
wildlife for resale mainly in Vietnam and southern China.
Raids on animal entertainment venues began in November 2003.
At Safari World in Min Buri police found 115 orangutans, but Safari
World had reported having only 44. As orangutans are not native to
Thailand, some were believed to have been smuggled from Malaysia and
Malaysian and Indonesian authorities in July 2004 requested
DNA testing to try to determine where the orangutans came from.
Safari World veterinarian Chatmongkol Pratcharoenwanich responded
that 41 of the 110 orangutans that the facility was then supposed to
have had died from pneumonia and had been cremated.
But only five had died. Three more were ill and later died.
Police found the other five adult orangutans and 32 babies crammed
into just five cages at the back of the property.
Further investigation determined that the orangutans were
being trained to participate in kickboxing exhibitions.
“Chimpanzees in bikinis announce the kickboxing bouts with
placards, and have been performing at the park for at least 20
years,” wrote London Independent correspondent Jan McGirk.
Under pressure from IPPL, Indones-ian animal advocates, and
quite a few shocked Thais, the kickboxing matches were banned.
Initially the motivation behind the Thai animal trafficking
crackdown might just have been trying to improve the image of the
nation in preparation for the CITES meeting, as some commentators
have alleged. Maybe the attribution of the motivation to King
Bhumibol Aduladej and Queen Sirikit was only good manners.
By the end of 2003, however, the world began to recognize
that animal trafficking was deeply implicated in a deadly outbreak of
the H5N1 strain of avian flu.
The traffic was in gamecocks.
Cockfighting, technically illegal in most of Thailand, is
widely practiced throughout Southeast Asia. H5N1 apparently passed
from migratory waterfowl to ducks raised in dense outdoor confinement
in southern China and South Korea, then spread to chickens and
indoor-reared poultry of all kinds with movements of gamecocks as a
key mechanism in transmitting the virus.
H5N1 subsided in early 2004 only after more than 100 million chickens
were either culled or died from the disease, which hit 10 nations
and was linked to cockfighting in nine of them. At least 27 humans
died, including 16 Vietnamese and eight Thais.
Vietnam declared itself free of H5N1 on March 30. But more
outbreaks occurred. Another 60,200 birds were killed or died in
Vietnam due to H5N1 by September 1. Two human babies and an adult
were fatally infected in August. Another baby died in the first week
Outbreaks also occurred in 27 of the 76 Thai provinces during
July. The Thai government made desultory efforts to require
cockfighters to register their birds before transporting them to
fights in other regions. Malaysian border guards in July intercepted
and killed 411 birds of various species who were being smuggled out
of Thailand, but in mid-August H5N1 reappeared among fighting cocks
and free-roaming hens at two villages in Pasir Pekan, Malaysia,
near the Thai border.
Officials moved quickly to contain the outbreak by killing
the host birds. On August 23 Malaysian government veterinarians
caught two people in the act of trying to haul about 30,000 chickens
into Thailand to escape the cull. Malaysian inspectors also
interdicted attempts to smuggle 29 birds, including 13 fighting
cocks, from Indonesia, where yet another H5N1 outbreak occurred.
Cockfighter Komsan Fukhom, 18, of Prachin Buri province,
on September 8 became the first Thai fatality from the second round
of H5N1. Three children from chicken-breeding families in the same
vicinity were hospitalized with H5N1 symptoms during the next two
Thai prime minister Thaksin Shina-watra on September 10
promised that cockfighters and gamecock breeders would be allowed to
vaccinate their birds against H5N1, but Japanese officials
immediately pointed out that permitting vaccination could cause Japan
to refuse imports of Thai poultry products.
The problem is that it is difficult to tell birds who have
been vaccinated against H5N1 from birds who may be carrying it.
H5N1, pigs, cats
Recent scientific findings about H5N1 have heightened anxiety
that it might mutate into a form capable of spreading from person to
person, not just bird-to-person.
Chinese H5N1 researcher Chen Hualan reported in separate
articles in the January and May 2004 editions of the Chinese Journal
of Preventive Veterinary Science that H5N1 crossed into pigs in at
least four different locations in China during April 2003. It did
not, however, spread pig-to-pig. The 1918-19, 1957-58, and
1968-69 flu pandemics that killed upward of 30 million people among
them are all believed to originated as avian flu variants that spread
to pigs, then mutated and spread from pigs to people before moving
Dutch researcher Thijs Kuiken reported in Science in
mid-August, based on laboratory tests involving 12 cats that H5N1
can be transmitted cat-to-cat.
Kuiken and team called the finding “extraordinary, because domestic
cats are generally considered to be resistant to disease from
influenza A virus infection,” the virus family to which H5N1 belongs.
Kuiken investigated cat-to-cat transmission after 14 of 15
cats in one Thai household apparently died from H5N1, along with a
clouded leopard in a Thai zoo, while a white tiger caged near the
leopard became ill but survived. All of the felines had been fed
meat from diseased chickens.