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    The Mr. Bigs of Wildlife Smuggling Can't Be Stopped

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    Thanks to increased enforcement efforts in China and Thailand, the world’s two largest markets for illegal wildlife parts, wildlife traffickers have pushed into Southeast Asia, with shipments of elephant, rhino, and tiger parts, amongst other species, coming in from Africa and India. While the fact that the animals most threatened by poaching are now getting ferried through Asia is nothing new, the larger number of seizures and arrests has left organized crime in charge. Of course, the mob is pretty damn good at both getting illicit products to customers while also greasing the palms of authorities, which has led officials in Thailand to say that wildlife trafficking simply can’t be stopped, all because people can’t live without ivory necklaces and rhino horn erection pills. How’s that for depressing?

    The AP just dropped a new report whose headline deserves credit for being appropriately stark: “Biggest Asian wildlife traffickers are untouchable.” It’s one of the best examples yet of how the market for illegal wildlife parts has become to mirror the drug trade, with corruption and power players ruling the trade as enforcement pushes it increasingly underground. Seriously, it sounds like it could be an alternate plot for Live and Let Die:

    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.

    Both China and Thailand have trumpeted record busts and the WWF’s recently-updated Wildlife Crime Scorecard (PDF) noted that both countries have improved their compliance with international wildlife regulations as well as their enforcement efforts, while countries like Vietnam lag far behind. But in Thailand, corruption has allowed wildlife kingpins to continue their business, as the AP notes:

    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.

    Corruption isn’t the only reason the animal trade still flows, of course. Just like we’ve seen in the drug trade, the sheer number of passengers flying through the world’s airports mixed with the ingenuity of smugglers makes eliminating the trade with enforcement along nearly impossible. And increased police action has made poaching and smuggling more difficult, which can only be a good thing when tigers are on the brink. But the AP hit the nail on the head: Until people stop coughing up tons of cash for dead animals, the trafficking itself can’t be stopped.

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    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.