Representatives from six Provincial Wildlife Enforcement Networks in the Golden Triangle meet in Kyiang Tong, Myanmar, to fight wildlife trafficking. Photo: Mia Signs / WWF Greater Mekong

Early on the morning of January 8, a team from the Wildlife Inspection Unit in Chiang Kong, Chiang Rai province, Thailand, was conducting a search at the Bann Jam Pong morning market. They had been sent there by Wachirayut Kietthibudr, head of the Wildlife Inspection Unit, and had been there since 10pm the previous night.

And then they found what they were looking for – a bag containing a 23kg of illegally poached and trafficked antelope meat, just as expected.

While on the surface, this product seizure doesn’t seem particularly out of the ordinary, the reason Wachirayut was able to send his team so confidently to that exact location had been months in the making.

Partnerships built

Bann Jam Pong morning market is on the Mekong River and hosts vendors from both Chiang Rai province in Thailand and Bokeo province in neighboring Laos. It is also the site of the first ever arrest under Thailand’s newly updated Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act, in which a Lao vendor had brought an illegally poached porcupine across the river to sell as bush-meat.

The dead porcupine, brought over from Laos in a plastic bag. Photo: Chien Vuong Quoc / WWF Greater Mekong

This arrest was witnessed back in November 2019, as part of the WWF-led, US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) funded Fighting Wildlife Trafficking in the Golden Triangle project cross-border meeting.

achirayut and other members of the Chiang Rai Provincial Wildlife Enforcement Network (P-WEN) had participated and been connected with Sombath Bounmaseng, deputy head of the Provincial Office of Forest Inspection in Bokeo province, and members of the Bokeo P-WEN. These two P-WENS operate directly across from each other on the Mekong border, and Sombath was eager to cooperate.

“We were all very committed to the idea of making the enforcement of wildlife crime transboundary,” Wachirayut said. “We’ve had many instances where criminals were able to take advantage of the proximity of our two countries and cross the border to leave our jurisdiction and evade arrest. I think we were both looking for a workable solution to this problem.”

With precisely this goal in mind, the WWF project has been working, not only to improve the capacity of provincial law-enforcement officials to identify wildlife crime and combat it, but to improve inter-agency and cross-border cooperation to improve the oversight of the illegal wildlife trade.

In November and December, WWF hosted two regional meetings that brought together the P-WENs from the provinces of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand that are in the Golden Triangle, a region known as a hotspot of illegal trade – for drugs, humans and wildlife.

The two meetings resulted in the signing of agreements across borders – between Laos and Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, and Myanmar and Thailand – that identified areas of high tactical interest for joint patrolling, as well as commitments to share intelligence on trafficking trends and people of interest. In order to establish good channels for sharing information, communication details were exchanged and point people connected.

Members of the P-WENs meet in Kyiang Tong, Shan state, Myanmar, to discuss future opportunities to fight cross-border illegal wildlife trade collectively. Photo: Mia Signs / WWF Greater Mekong

And the stage was set.

Operationalizing good relations

Sombath had found out about the antelope product that was going to be trafficked across the border, and decided to contact Wachirayut in Thailand. Although the antelope is a restricted species under Laotian law, trafficking the animal into Thailand has a heftier penalty – up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million Thai baht (US$31,600) – under the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act.

“What’s key in the success of this operation was that the two departments, and more importantly the two people, connected and trusted each other,” Nuwat Leelapata, director of the Wildlife Inspection Office, Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, told a recent meeting in Kyiang Tong, Myanmar, which brought together all three countries to discuss progress to date, best practices, lessons learned and ways forward.

“This project already has a success story, and we will have many more because we know and trust each other, and can work together to improve our enforcement of wildlife crime,” Nuwat said.

With this first example of cross-border collaboration, the P-WENs are ready to operationalize their enforcement agreements and take the work to the next stage. 

“We are optimistic that this is just the first of many cross-border actions, and that its success will be replicated and expanded,” said Jedsada Taweekan, manager for WWF’s Illegal Wildlife Trade program in the Greater Mekong.

“It takes time to build trust, but without it, this kind of intelligence-sharing is impossible. If we are to fight wildlife crime, we need to band together, and this is the first step.”

Mia Signs is the communications manager for WWF-Greater Mekong's work on illegal wildlife trade, as well as for the WWF initiative to Close Asia's Ivory Markets. She is based in Vientiane, Laos.