Thai police take the finger prints of Boonchai Bach. Photo: AsiaWorks

Authorities in Thailand have arrested a “key member” of a notorious syndicate for allegedly being involved in wildlife smuggling.

Police picked up Bach Mai, 40, who is also known as Boonchai, in Nakhon Phanom, a remote province near the Mekong River. He is one of two brothers, who are allegedly part of a “crime family” in the region.

Boonchai is being held in connection with the alleged trafficking of 14 rhino horns from Africa into Thailand last month.

“It is like catching one of the Corleones,” Steven Galster, the founder of the Bangkok-based anti-trafficking organization Freeland, told The Guardian newspaper in London, a reference to the fictional mafia family from The Godfather films.

The Bach brothers’ business, it has been claimed, involves smuggling wildlife through Laos, Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia.

They have become infamous in the region, while their activities have been heavily documented by leading newspapers in the UK.

“This arrest is significant for many reasons,” Chutrakul Yodmadee, a police colonel, told the media. “The confiscated items are high in value.

“We were able to arrest the whole network involved, starting from the courier, the facilitator and the exporter. We even got the moneyman [investor] behind the gang.”

Boonchai was paraded in front of the press at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on Saturday morning. He faces charges of conspiracy and wildlife smuggling, which he denies. One of the charges relates to the haul of rhino horns seized at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in December.

He was arrested by police after allegedly crossing from Laos into northern Thailand.

Nakhon Phanom is the site of a former United States base, which was used during the Vietnam War. The area has become a favorite haunt of crime gangs, smuggling everything from people to wildlife and drugs.

“The security officers of Suvarnabhumi Airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport Police Station, Thai Customs and Immigration Police at Nakhon Phanom are to be congratulated for breaking open the country’s largest wildlife crime case, ever,” said Galster, adding the Freeland had been tracking Boonchai for more than a decade.

But wildlife groups will be closely watching the case, given the Thai police’s somewhat checkered record in managing heavyweight suspects. Boonchai was taken to court on Saturday, where he was expected to seek bail.