A pangolin takes a quizzical look at freedom after forestry officials seized 245 of them, along with 64 protected black swamp turtles, from wildlife smugglers at Don Mueang Airport in Thailand. Photo: AFP via Bangkok Post / Sarot Meksophawannakul
A pangolin takes a quizzical look at freedom after forestry officials seized 245 of them, along with 64 protected black swamp turtles, from wildlife smugglers at Don Mueang Airport in Thailand. Photo: AFP via Bangkok Post / Sarot Meksophawannakul

In May, the Geneva-based international police agency Interpol coordinated “Operation Thunderstorm,” a month-long series of sting operations across 92 counties worldwide that successfully arrested traffickers and confiscated illegally traded wildlife.

Interpol said that some 1,400 suspects had been identified worldwide and that tons of meat, elephant ivory, pangolin scales and illegally trafficked timber were seized in the crackdown, according to press reports at the time.

In Southeast Asia, the seizures included turtles in Malaysia and eight tons of pangolin scales, half of which were found by Vietnamese authorities on a ship arriving from Africa.

In both China and Vietnam, the anteaters’ scales are prized for their alleged medicinal value. And smugglers can purchase the pangolins at low prices in Uganda and then sell them at high prices in Asia.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, the meat of freshwater turtles has also long been regarded in both China and Vietnam as having medicinal value.

While Operation Thunderstorm’s results could certainly be described as impressive, the huge profits to be made from the wildlife trafficking trade are likely to keep it going at a high level in Southeast Asia.

little baby monkey in a cage black market business of wildlife trafficking
A monkey in a cage at a black market for wildlife trafficking. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Sheldon Jordan, director general of wildlife enforcement at the Canadian Department of the Environment, described the results of Operation Thunderstorm as “spectacular.”

But he also estimated that the world’s wildlife crime was worth about US$150 billion a year, making it fourth in value among global illegal trade profits behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

In Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, well-organized international smuggling rings and crime networks are behind the highly profitable trade, adding to the difficulty of stamping it out.

In early September 2017, the arrest of an Indian trafficking boss based in Singapore revealed the far-reaching nature of these criminal groups.

In a high-profile case, Indian authorities arrested Manivannan Murugesan, whom they described as the “kingpin” of India’s illegal turtle trade. In cities with large Chinese populations, turtle soup and a kind of “turtle jelly” are considered to be exotic delicacies.

Murugesan was reported to have links with fellow smugglers in Thailand and Malaysia. In addition, he had ties with traffickers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and the East African nation of Madagascar.

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Tortoises flying economy class

In addition to the sophisticated operations of big-time kingpins and smugglers such as Murugesan, individual operators have come up with innovative ways of smuggling animals, sometimes by air.

In one case some years ago, which was reported by the online legal publication Thailand Lawyer, officials at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport found four baby leopards, a marmoset, a gibbon, and an Asiatic black bear cub tucked inside a passenger’s carry-on luggage.

On a larger scale, on May 17, 2017, customs officials at Malaysia’s Senai International Airport thwarted an attempt to smuggle hundreds of endangered rare tortoises into Malaysia from the island nation of Madagascar.

This handout picture released by French customs on December 29, 2014 shows turtles from Madagascar seized by French customs on December 14, 2014 in Roissy airport near Paris. French customs announced on December 29 they had achieved a record seizure of 170 ´ Astrochelys radiata ª turtles, an endangered species, found hidden in the double base of six sea cucumbers boxes proceeding from Madagascar and going to Laos. AFP PHOTO / DOUANES FRANCAISESRESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN - NO MARKETING- MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/DOUANES FRANCAISES" - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP PHOTO / DOUANES FRANCAISES / HO
Smuggled Madagascar turtles seized by customs officials in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Douanes Francaises

But wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia involves many species of animals and animal parts beyond turtles and tortoises.

In a commentary published in June, Ravi Velloor of The Straits Times newspaper noted that more than two-thirds of the tigers surviving in the wild could be found on the South Asian subcontinent, where India and Nepal have made “impressive strides in conservation.” In contrast, Velloor wrote, “Southeast Asia, sad to say, is a laggard.”

Of the 13 “tiger range” nations of the world, seven – Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – are in Southeast Asia.

A market for tiger parts can be found in Vietnam, where wealthy patrons of the trade share the Chinese belief in the purported medicinal benefits of tiger-bone wine, made by steeping the bone in rice wine.

In 2015, the Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre reported that the trading of parts of endangered animals, including tigers, had gone “rampant” in Vietnam.

Wildlife trafficking is illegal in all of Southeast Asia, and several nations have recently strengthened their laws against the illicit trade. In January, for example, Vietnam amended its penal code to increase the maximum prison sentence for illegal wildlife trafficking from seven to 15 years.

But when it comes to the trafficking of pangolins and rhinoceros horns, experts say Vietnam has been slow to implement its pledges or to impose the maximum sentences.

In a possible sign of progress, on March 20 a Vietnamese court handed a 13-month prison sentence to Nguyen Mau Chien, the suspected kingpin of a network that smuggled ivory and rhino horn into Vietnam from Africa.

The Vietnamese non-governmental organization Education for Nature (ENV), however, questioned whether a 13-month sentence was sufficient punishment for the alleged leader of a major criminal network linked to the killings of hundreds of African rhinos and elephants.

Meanwhile, experts say that some ivory continues to be smuggled into Vietnam, where it’s carved and sold to Chinese tourists who are finding it hard to obtain at home, where the sale is banned.

Thailand clamps down

On a positive note on January 20, Thai authorities announced that they had arrested Boonchai Bach, an alleged wildlife-trafficking kingpin.

The Freeland Foundation, a non-governmental anti-trafficking group based in Bangkok, said Boonchai and his family ran a criminal syndicate that had trafficked poached animals and animal parts for more than a decade.

“One of the largest known traffickers in a really big syndicate has been arrested,” said Matthew Pritchett, Freeland’s director of communications. “I can’t think of anything in the past five years that has been this significant,” he added.

Thailand-Boonchai Bach-Wildlife Smuggling-2017
Alleged wildlife trafficking kingpin Boonchai Bach poses with elephant tusks. Photo: Facebook

The New York Times quoted Thai police as saying that Boonchai’s case also implicated a Thai official and Chinese and Vietnamese couriers.

The Times described Thailand as a transit hub for trafficked wildlife that was considered to have the largest unregulated market for elephant ivory in the world before it introduced laws several years ago criminalizing the sale of African elephant ivory.

But the newspaper said rhinoceros horns, pangolin scales, turtles, and other wildlife were still “repeatedly smuggled” through Thailand.

As the publication Thailand Lawyer noted several years ago, Thailand’s “porous borders are difficult to monitor,” and Bangkok’s international airport is a huge regional transportation hub for various countries within Southeast Asia.

Thailand shares borders with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, all of which have failed to implement laws rigorously against wildlife trafficking.

In contrast with those three countries, Thailand shut down a provincial temple that was masquerading as a center for conservation where visitors could pose for pictures with tigers.

During a raid on the temple, Thai officials confiscated tigers, tiger parts and other endangered wildlife.

The authorities caught a Buddhist monk trying to flee in a car packed with amulets meant for sale that were made from tigers’ teeth and fur.

Meanwhile, Thailand also deserves credit for helping to protect a number of Indochinese tigers, a fast-disappearing sub-species that can be found near the country’s border with Myanmar. According to one report, Thailand’s tiger population may actually be slightly increasing.

Thai wildlife officials load a tiger into a cage on a truck after they removed it from an enclosure after the tiger was anaesthetised at the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province, western Thailand on May 30, 2016.Thai wildlife officials armed with a court order on May 30 resumed the treacherous process of moving tigers from a controversial temple which draws tourists as a petting zoo, but stands accused of selling off the big cats for slaughter. / AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT
Thai wildlife officials load a tiger into a cage on a truck after removing it from a Buddhist temple in Kanchanaburi province, western Thailand, on May 30, 2016. Photo: AFP/Christophe Archambault

In mid-2017, government authorities launched wildlife crime busts across Malaysia, seizing elephant tusks, pangolin scales, live animals and wildlife parts.

According to The Maritime Executive magazine, the Sabah Customs Department seized 8 tons of pangolin scales at Sepanggar Port.

A month later, the same agency seized 3 tons of elephant tusks and 5 tons of pangolin scales at the same port. Customs officials told the media that they believed the shipments involved were from Nigeria and bound for China.

Meanwhile, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) seized nearly 3,000 reptiles and dozens of wildlife parts in the states of Kelantan and Perak.

The wide-ranging seizures netted tiger teeth and claws as well as products made from the meat of sun bears and sambar deer.

Indonesia’s caged birds sing

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country, the trafficking in caged songbirds recently gained international attention.

A new study by TRAFFIC, a monitoring organization based in Cambridge, England, concluded that 13 of Indonesia’s bird species – including the country’s national bird, the Javan hawk-eagle – were at risk of extinction.

The NGO BirdLife International says that while some of the birds may be traded across Asia, available evidence suggests that most of the demand for them comes from Indonesians living in Java.

It should be noted that most of the Indonesian birds are kept and well treated as pets. But an Indonesian bird known as the helmeted hornbill is heavily trafficked, experts say.

TRAFFIC said thousands of these birds had been killed and traded for their unique, solid-bill casques and carved as a substitute for elephant ivory in China, where the authorities have begun cracking down on the ivory trade.

On a positive note, dedicated volunteers are working at the local level in several Southeast Asian nations to help NGOs in their efforts to conserve wildlife.

Yogyakarta: Bird seller at a bird market in Java
An Indonesian bird seller at a market in Yogyakarta, Java. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

In the Philippines, for example, NGOs supported by volunteers have worked with local communities to conserve endangered species such as the Philippine eagle, the Philippine cockatoo, the green sea turtle, and the Isabela oriole.

Marites Gatan-Balbas, deputy director and field project manager of the Mabuwaya Foundation, won a Whitley Foundation award several years ago for helping to bring back one of the world’s rarest crocodiles back from the brink of extinction.

It turns out that the small crocodile is hardly a man-eater, but is instead a shy and friendly creature that doesn’t attack unless provoked.

Gatan-Balbas’ biggest challenge was to change the crocodile’s image through community initiatives, such as lectures, puppet shows and the reading of storybooks depicting the crocodiles as unthreatening.

In Myanmar, where a trafficking ban has been ignored and the growth in demand in neighboring China has led to a rise in the number of elephants and other protected species being killed, local communities are also fighting back.

Villagers living in northeastern Myanmar near the country’s border with China learned how to raise and nurture 175 star tortoises that they recovered from a trafficker’s truck. They stopped the truck just before it crossed the border into China.

While it is hard to deny the usefulness of crackdowns carried out by governments such as Operation Thunderstorm, it’s such local community actions that may yet make the biggest difference in saving endangered wildlife from extinction.