With an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder, Sompong Prajobjan roamed one of Thailand's lush national parks for more than a decade.
BANGKOK With an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder, Sompong Prajobjan roamed one of Thailand's lush national parks for more than a decade.
The ex-soldier was part of a small crew of poachers who bagged two elephants, a tiger, a couple of water buffaloes, and hundreds of deer in Khao Yai National Park. They captured exotic birds and stripped the forest of valuable aloewood used in perfumes. In a good month, Sompong earned 50,000 baht (US$1,200), a very healthy income in Thailand.
Evading the forestry police was easy.
"They were after me several times, but they could never catch me," said Sompong, whose booty flowed into a global illegal wildlife trade that is the second greatest threat to endangered species after habitat destruction.
Experts attending a U.N. wildlife meeting in Bangkok say the battle against the trade sometimes worth more per kg than heroin or cocaine is being lost due to lax enforcement.
"Profits are high, the risk of detection is low, and laws are very weak," said John Sellar, senior enforcement officer for CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which regulates trade in animals and plants.
But Asia now appears ready to act against a booming multibillion trade in everything from ant-eating pangolins and snakes to African ivory and tiger skins. On Monday, 10 Southeast Asian nations pledged for the first time to share intelligence, tighten borders, and review weak laws.
Thailand, eager to shed its image as an "exotic supermarket" and transit point for traffickers, has proposed a summit next year on a regional law enforcement network akin to Interpol.
Conservationists applaud the moves, but they say Thailand's experience underscores the challenge.
Small Fines, Big Profits
Bordered by Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Malaysia and home to a modern road network and international airports, Thailand is a hub for traffickers feeding the cooking pots and medicine shops of China.
Thai officials say poor conservation efforts by impoverished neighbors are partly to blame. Laos only joined CITES in June, and its capacity to fight the trade is limited.
Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti insists Bangkok is cracking down, with 449 arrests and 26,000 seizures of ivory, pangolins, and other illicit goods in the past year.
But most arrests are of small-time poachers like Sompong, who earn a fraction of the profits creamed off by major traffickers, said Steve Galster of Wild Aid Thailand.
They could face up to four years in jail, but most are back in business after a 40,000 baht ($960) fine a bargain for someone pocketing $50,000 for a rhino horn or $100 per kg for a truckload of pangolins.
"No trafficker has gone to jail in the last 10 years here. It's only the poachers," said Galster, who has tracked a regional wildlife crime ring called Cobra and its suspected leader, Leuthai Tiewchareun.
Wild Aid says Cobra a group of well-connected Vietnamese, Lao, Thai, and Malaysians who earn up to $10 million on a single shipment to China operates with impunity.
Leuthai made headlines in October 2003 when police raided his home and found more than 20 bear paws and six slaughtered tigers. Months later he was nabbed with a tiger carcass near Laos.
Leuthai, currently out on bail, faces nine charges that mostly carry fines. It frustrates Thailand's top wildlife cop.
"The penalty is too low," said Major-General Swake Pinsinchai. "For those who commit repeated crimes, the courts should not grant them bail. They should get at least 10 years in jail."
Bangkok says it is reviewing legislation, has agreed to work with NGOs and the private sector on combatting the trade, and has launched awareness programs aimed at consumers.
Ex-poachers are also trying to spread the word.
Jailed for a month after he was finally caught, Sompong now grows mushrooms and chrysanthemums under a Wild Aid program that has cut poaching in Khao Yai by 70 percent since 1999.
"I learned my lesson. I understand it was wrong," he said.
And what of his old comrades in crime?
"I still see them and I try to convince them to stop, but they think I'm a spy for the forestry police."