Long outgunned and outmaneuvered by smuggling gangs, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed last year to form the Wildlife Enforcement Network to combat a black-market trade in plants and animals that generates $10 billion in revenue each year.
HUA HIN, Thailand Brandishing pistols, a half dozen Thai police officers jump out of a pickup truck and surround the house of an alleged international wildlife trafficker.
"Open the door. We want to search your house," yells one agent.
The team storms, arresting the Filipino suspect and confiscating boxes full of ivory from Africa destined to be sold across Asia. They also find 20 pangolins, armadillo-like animals that could have been killed to supply the traditional medicine markets of China.
The arrest would seem to be a rare success for authorities -- except that the undercover operation was just for show, part of a two-week training course conducted for the newly formed Thai anti-poaching task force in this town 90 miles south of Bangkok.
Still, it was one of the first signs Southeast Asia is finally taking seriously wildlife crime that supplies exotic pets to Japan, Europe and the United States and the ingredients for costly, elaborate meals and traditional medicine in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Long outgunned and outmaneuvered by smuggling gangs, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed last year to form the Wildlife Enforcement Network to combat a black-market trade in plants and animals that generates $10 billion in revenue each year -- third behind illicit dealings in weapons and drugs.
"We're not only talking small-scale poaching here but organized crime that threatens biodiversity, global health and regional security," said Winston Bowman, regional environmental director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Bangkok.
Bowman noted that since the United States is one of the largest importers of wildlife, it wants to ensure the animals landing on its shores are legal. Thus the U.S. is providing $2.7 million over three years to the anti-smuggling groups WildAid and Traffic for training and technical support in Thailand and eventually in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
To understand the extent of the illicit wildlife trade across Southeast Asia, a good place to start is one of the hundreds of teeming markets that serve as key transit points for illegal animals throughout the region and beyond.
Most -- like Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market or Jakarta's Pramuka Market -- are filled with parrots, lizards and turtles that are sold illegally for the pet trade. Behind closed doors, buyers can find everything from cuddly creatures to black bears, elephants and orangutans that often end up in safari parks or circuses.
Farther afield and even more brazen, remote markets along Thailand's borders with Myanmar and Laos specialize in animal parts -- furry bear claws, bloody tiger skins, mountain goat horns -- destined for Chinese consumers looking for a miraculous cancer cure or special aphrodisiac.
A recent visit to Chatuchak revealed cages of illegal Thai birds known as red-whiskered bulbuls, fish tanks full of endangered, radiated tortoises from Madagascar and furry, mouse-like marsupials from Indonesia called sugar gliders. All were being sold illegally into the international pet trade.
"We were in here five minutes and we saw illegal wildlife," Chris Shepherd, senior program officer for Traffic, said as he walked past aquariums filled with fist-sized radiated tortoises, which are among the rarest reptiles.
"Nothing in here is legal," he added. "No one is checking. If they were checking, how could this place exist?"
Traders say much of their success lies in bribing officials and forging documents to trick customs agents into thinking an animal was bred in captivity or can be sold legally -- an easy task since officials have little experience identifying rare species.
"Before I reach a ferry, I make a call. I tell them, 'You didn't see anything,' and I leave an envelope" full of money, said a Filipino trader, who agreed to explain how the business works on condition of anonymity. "You know, in our government, nothing is impossible as long as there is money."
Dealers said they also advise customers on how to smuggle small animals without getting caught. "My customers put them in suitcases, in socks. ... They wear loose paints, and put them in their underwear," said a Thai trader who identified himself only as An.
"No problem. Thailand is not strict," he added.
But traders in Thailand and the Philippines say business has become more difficult in recent months as authorities step up monitoring and increase raids at markets and air and sea ports.
In November, Thai authorities arrested a Japanese trying to smuggle out nine slow lorises, furry primates from Southeast Asia. Over the summer, they closed down a Bangkok store selling shawls made from the endangered Tibetan antelope and confiscated 245 pangolins and 64 freshwater turtles bound for Laos.
"The situation at the market is much better," said Thai police Lt. Thanayod Kengkasij, whose beat includes Chatuchak. "But we can't expect all the traders will disappear. Some are already shifting to other locations."
Trainers, including some from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, taught Thai officers about surveillance and interviewing as well as identifying illegal animals and plants.
They also encouraged creative thinking in charging traffickers, avoiding weak wildlife laws and instead using statutes with tougher sentences such as money laundering, weapons possession and tax violations.
WildAid's Steve Galster, who helped train Thai officers, said that despite increased efforts, authorities in Southeast Asia still have failed to break up the gangs involved in wildlife smuggling because they usually only go after small-time poachers or dealers.
"What they need to stop the trade or curtail it significantly is go undercover and get close to the major dealers and find out all about them and catch them red handed," he said. "They can then publicize the arrest and spook the rest of them out of the business."
Galster also said countries need to put more money into state-of-the art weapons and strengthen wildlife laws.
Under a new law in Singapore, traders face fines ranging from $32,000 per specimen to a maximum of $316,000, along with a jail term of up to two years.
Galster noted the region's typical $1,000 fine isn't much of a deterrent for a dealer who can make $10,000 selling a tiger and said animal traffickers rarely get jail terms.
"Judges won't hear the cases because they don't think these people are a threat to society," he said.
Associated Press writers Oliver Tees in Manila and Robin McDowell in Jakarta contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press