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SOS Rhino : In the News : Call for Wildlife Interpol to Save Species

Call for Wildlife Interpol to Save Species

  BANGKOK, Sep 22 (IPS) - In 1998, a five-year long sting investigation, dubbed 'Operation Chameleon' resulted in the capture, in Mexico, of one of the world's most notorious animal smugglers, Keng Liang 'Anson' Wong.

In 2000, after spending two years in a Mexican prison fighting extradition to the United States, he pleaded guilty in the U.S. federal court in San Francisco to 40 felony charges stemming from 1992 to 1998 federal indictments for trafficking in some of the most rare and endangered reptile species on earth.

Wong together with his Malaysian partners spearheaded an international wildlife smuggling ring that illegally imported exotic reptiles by concealing them in express delivery packages, airline baggage, and large commercial shipments of legally declared animals.

The Malaysian national was scheduled to be sentenced in March 2001 and was expected to spend at least 20 years in jail. Three years later, the wildlife smuggler is back home in Malaysia.

In October 2003, Thai forestry police raided an illegal slaughterhouse, on the outskirts of Bangkok, which specialised in wildlife meat. They found six bear carcasses, seven live tigers, a hoard of slaughtered endangered animals and a skull of saola, a rare indigenous hoofed animal, less than 100 of which are believed to still exist.

The slaughterhouse is suspected of being part of a region- wide trafficking gang, that includes Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore based wildlife traffickers.

A year later, in 2004 -- as if rubbing salt into the wounds of conservationists and animal rights activists -- certain Thai politicians have begun the push for an amnesty for wildlife smugglers.

It's cases like these, due to the vagaries of the law, that enrage WildAid Thailand's Chairman Senator Kraisak Choonhavan and his colleagues in the group committed to fighting wildlife trafficking.

''Many arrests have been made by the police from Thailand's border areas to the markets and ports. But after the arrests, we find that many of the culprits are released,'' Kraisak told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

''I know of one person who was arrested seven times (for smuggling wildlife). He always was released after questioning,'' he added.

Kraisak pointed out that the wrong people were being arrested by the authorities for wildlife smuggling.

''The ones who usually do get caught in this ugly trade are the little guys, the poor poachers. They are the ones who go to jail, while the big traffickers get away,'' said the senator. ''There is a lack of political commitment to take this trade seriously.''

''The (police) investigations need to go on further and they need to go up the ladder,'' added the senator.

For this reason Kraisak and Steven Galster, WildAid Thailand's director, are calling for the creation of a new ''wildlife Interpol'' network ahead of next month's 13th Meeting of Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Fauna (CITES).

The CITES meeting, between Oct 2 to 14, is hosted by Thailand and will be attended by 166 countries.

The convention is a U.N. backed treaty that has been in effect for nearly 30 years. But without any policing authority, its effectiveness is only as good as the political will and resources of each of its 166 member nations.

About 100 proposals and resolutions about various species of plants and animals will be discussed and debated at this biennial meeting, relating to elephants, snakes, orchids, turtles and other threatened and endangered species.

''But one thing that each of these species have in common - and what is constantly missing from the CITES debate - is that CITES lacks teeth to protect these species from illegal traders who make up the world's newest form of mafia,'' said Galster.

''After drugs and arms, the illegal wildlife trade is the next most profitable form of black market business in the world. But most governments treat it as a low priority crime,'' he added.

According to WildAid, this type of trade is attracting organised criminals because of the high profits (up to 800 percent in some cases) and the lack of serious punishment, which leads to an estimated trade worth at least six billion U.S. dollars annually in the world's black markets.

The figures given by WildAid Thailand are staggering.

''Take for instance a group of poachers that sneaks into a national park in the (north-eastern) Indian state of Assam and kills a rhinoceros for its horn, by either shooting or electrocuting it. They will then get between 300 to 500 dollars for the horn,'' said Galster. ''When it goes to either Burma or Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, before being smuggled to Hong Kong it can fetch between 37,000 to 50,000 dollars.''

According to WildAid, in Thailand a poacher will get between 80 to 100 dollars for killing a tiger. But by the time it gets to the market, the person selling it will get between 3,000 to 15,000 dollars just for the skin, minus the organs, bones and meat - which fetch another hefty sum of money.

The WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund) estimates that there are only 1,000 Indo-Chinese tigers left in Thailand and Vietnam.

''Wildlife smugglers are operating across borders but law enforcement officials are not. They might be cooperating in drug- trading, human trafficking but certainly there's no cross-border law enforcement cooperation going on in the wildlife trade,'' said Galster.

One probable reason according to the conservationist is that law enforcement officers at the borders could be on the take. ''There's corruption and that's why agencies don't work together - - they're afraid of who they are sharing information with.''

Both Galster and Senator Kraisak want Thailand to act as the leader in launching a regional CITES law enforcement network.

''This opportunity may not come along for a long time, and many species really cannot afford to wait,'' said Galster. (END/2004)

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