“Striking that crucial equilibrium between humanity and our natural environment is essential,” declares Pol Col Wanpichit Wattanasakmonta, an officer involved in the formidable task of combating wildlife trafficking. “This is not merely about preserving wildlife. Our focus is to instill in everyone the importance of safeguarding our resources and the environment. With a sustainable ecosystem, we can coexist in peace with nature.”
While this is a noble aspiration, the reality is that Pol Col Wanpichit’s day-to-day involves a relentless pursuit of criminals involved in a shockingly sizable yet illegal industry, with an estimated valuation of a staggering US$20 billion. This nefarious trade ranks fourth globally, trailing only drug, human, and arms trafficking.
With its rich biodiversity, accounting for about 10% of all animal species globally, Thailand occupies a critical position in the world of wildlife trade. It serves as a source, destination, and transit point for trafficking activities. However, the landscape has changed dramatically over the years, with a significant reduction in farms housing tigers, bears, crocodiles, shop windows showcasing tiger and leopard skins, and open sales of exotic species at thriving markets like Chatuchak.
Positive strides were made in 2019 with the implementation of the Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act. This legislation strengthened protections for non-native species and escalated the penalties for traffickers—potentially putting them behind bars for up to two decades. In an exemplary case, Vietnamese “kingpin” trafficker Boonchai Bach faced imprisonment for five years in absentia post an initial acquittal. Similarly, the notorious Malaysian trafficker, Teo Boon Ching was sentenced to 18 months in America for his involvement in a conspiracy to traffic hundreds of kilograms of rhinoceros horns, valued at millions of dollars.
Unfortunately, wildlife trafficking persistently plagues the kingdom. One stark illustration of this involved a rat and an otter freely roaming an international flight after escaping from a fellow passenger’s carry-on bag. While news coverage offered a humorously light perspective on the incident, it provided a stark reminder of the serious issues and threats associated with smuggling—animal cruelty, extinction of species, and potential escalation of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19.
Pol Col Wanpichit, in conversation with the Bangkok Post, mentioned a surge in the seizure of both protected and ‘reserved’ animals from smugglers in recent years. “There are multiple species, inclusive of exotic birds, cubs, macaques, and more recently, even pangolins,” he added. Snake and tiger parts are amongst the commonly trafficked items.
Pangolins, often referred to as “scaly anteaters”, are usually poached for their flesh and their scales, valued in traditional Chinese medicine. They were once a common sight in Thailand but now are mostly caught in Indonesia and then shipped alive to Myanmar or transported overland through Malaysia, subsequently crossing the Thai border. Their journey usually ends in China, via Laos.
Moreover, the smuggling of macaque monkeys is rampant. Pol Col Wanpichit states, “They originate from the northern regions of Thailand”, with a high probability of ending up in labs based in China. He continued, without revealing specific countries, as per standard policing policies, “We can assert that they are initially transferred to neighboring nations before being smuggled into a third country for experimental purposes.”
The officer is resolute. While investigators have reported progress in battling trade-dominated criminal gangs, until demand for the product declines, eradication efforts will not completely eliminate this illicit trade. He maintains, “In certain countries, awareness about the risks, aftermath, and penalties associated with wildlife trafficking is sadly lacking. Even in Thailand, it’s common for people to dismiss it casually as hunting or a way of life.”
To catch the complete interview with Pol Col Wanpichit Wattanasakmonta on wildlife trafficking, follow the link – https://spoti.fi/3ZQ7fOv, where Dave Kendall delves deeper into this topic during the fourth episode of the new Bangkok Post podcast—Deeper Dive—also available across other popular podcast platforms.