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Biggest Asian wildlife traffickers are untouchable

Wednesday - 8/15/2012, 11:12am  ET

By DENIS D. GRAY
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) - Squealing tiger cubs stuffed into carry-on bags. Luggage packed with hundreds of squirming tortoises, elephant tusks, even water dragons and American paddlefish. Officials at Thailand's gateway airport proudly tick off the illegally trafficked wildlife they have seized over the past two years.

But Thai and foreign law enforcement officers tell another story: Officials working-hand-in-hand with traffickers ensure that other shipments through Suvarnabhumi International Airport are whisked off before they even reach customs inspection.

It's a murky mix. A 10-fold increase in wildlife law enforcement actions, including seizures, has been reported in the past six years in Southeast Asia. Yet, the trade's Mr. Bigs, masterful in taking advantage of pervasive corruption, appear immune to arrest and continue to orchestrate the decimation of wildlife in Thailand, the region and beyond.

And Southeast Asia's honest cops don't have it easy.

"It is very difficult for me. I have to sit among people who are both good and some who are corrupt, says Chanvut Vajrabukka, a retired police general. "If I say, `You have to go out and arrest that target,' some in the room may well warn them,'" says Chanvut, who now advises ASEAN-WEN, the regional wildlife enforcement network.

Several kingpins, says wildlife activist Steven Galster, have recently been confronted by authorities, "but in the end, good uniforms are running into, and often stopped by bad uniforms. It's like a bad Hollywood cop movie.

"Most high-level traffickers remain untouched and continue to replace arrested underlings with new ones," says Galster, who works for the FREELAND Foundation, an anti-trafficking group.

Galster, who earlier worked undercover in Asia and elsewhere, heaps praise on the region's dedicated, honest officers because they persevere knowing they could be sidelined for their efforts.

Recently, Lt. Col. Adtaphon Sudsai, a highly regarded, outspoken officer, was instructed to lay off what had seemed an open-and-shut case he cracked four years ago when he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin.

This led him to Mrs. Daoreung Chaimas, alleged by conservation groups to be one of Southeast Asia's biggest tiger dealers. Despite being arrested twice, having her own assistants testify against her and DNA testing that showed two cubs were not offsprings from zoo-bred parents as she claimed, Daoreung remains free and the case may never go to the prosecutor's office.

"Her husband has been exercising his influence," says Adtaphon, referring to her police officer spouse. "It seems that no policeman wants to get involved with this case." The day the officer went to arrest her the second time, his transfer to another post was announced.

"Maybe it was a coincidence," the colonel says.

In another not uncommon case, a former Thai police officer who tried to crack down on traders at Bangkok's vast Chatuchak Market got a visit from a senior police general who told him to "chill it or get removed."

"I admit that in many cases, I cannot move against the big guys," Chanvut, the retired general, notes. "The syndicates like all organized crime are built like a pyramid. We can capture the small guys but at the top they have money, the best lawyers, protection. What are we going to do?"

Chanvut's problems are shared by others in Southeast Asia, the prime funnel for wildlife destined for the world's No. 1 consumer _ China _ where many animal parts are consumed in the belief they have medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties.

Most recently, a torrent of rhino horn and elephant tusks has poured through it from Africa, which suffers the greatest slaughter of these two endangered animals in decades.

Vietnam was singled out last month by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as the top destination country for the highly-prized rhino horn.

Tens of thousands of birds, mostly parrots and cockatoos plucked from the wild, are being imported from the Solomon Islands into Singapore, often touted as one of Asia's least corrupt nations, in violation of CITES, the international convention on wildlife trade.

 According to TRAFFIC, the international body monitoring wildlife trade, the imported birds are listed as captive-bred, even though it's widely known that the Pacific Ocean islands have virtually no breeding facilities.

Communist Laos continues to harbor Vixay Keosavang, identified as one of the region's half dozen Mr. Bigs, who has been linked by the South African press to a rhino smuggling ring. The 54-year-old former soldier and provincial official is reported to have close ties to senior government officials in Laos and Vietnam.

Thai and foreign enforcement agents, who insist on anonymity since most work undercover, say they have accumulated unprecedented details of the gangs, which are increasingly linked to drug and human trafficking syndicates.

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