The stakes are high. According to conservationists and police, poachers are paid 7,000 baht to 15,000 baht (US$232 to US$497) per kilogram for a tiger carcass. Middlemen then sell the animals on for about 10 times that amount, mostly to customers in China and Vietnam, where the bones and penis are used in tonics and aphrodisiacs. Yet penalties for wildlife offences remain absurdly low, with fines ranging from 500 baht to 40,000 baht.
Thailand has much to protect. The country is home to some of the most biodiverse tropical forests in Southeast Asia. Just two hours from Bangkok, our car almost ran over a king cobra, which expressed its indignation by rearing up angrily and flickering its tongue.
Despite this ecological wealth, wildlife crime was a low priority for law enforcement authorities for many years. However, there are signs that attitudes may be changing. Thai customs officials have made several high-profile arrests in the past two years, including that of a woman who attempted to smuggle a live baby tiger cub through Bangkok airport in a case full of stuffed animal toys. A sting operation last week apprehended a United Arab Emirates citizen whose belongings concealed two leopards, two panthers, an Asiatic black bear and two macaque monkeys.
More impressive still was an undercover operation by the Thai police this year that exposed a large tiger-trading syndicate. Its ringleader, a woman known as “J,” remains at large, partly because her husband is a police officer, but investigators said they were closing in.
“I believe she may have been selling 100 tigers per year for 10 years,” said Colonel Kittipong Khawsamang, deputy head of the wildlife crime division as he leafed through police photographs of tiger carcasses kept on ice. “We know she is a big trader and have been collecting evidence, but we don’t yet have enough for a prosecution.”
Khawsamang said recent raids have shown Thailand has become a hub of the tiger trade, due to its location between other range nations in Southeast Asia and China, the main market. The business is also supplied by Thailand’s many tiger farms, some of which claim to operate as zoos while covertly breeding animals for sale. The most notorious is the Sri Racha zoo near Pattaya, which police have raided on several occasions, confiscating hundreds of animals. Tourists still flock to watch the farm-bred tigers jump through flaming hoops, suckle at pigs and walk around on their hind legs to the music of the Can-Can and laughter from the audience.
Police and conservationists believe these “zoos” encourage poaching both as a source of breeding stock and by sustaining the market for tiger products.
General Misakawan Buara, commander of Thailand’s environmental crime division, said: “The problem is, we can only check permits and the inventory, but we can’t check which tigers are going in and out because we are police, not animal experts. We need more DNA checks, implanted chips or a tagging system so we can verify the origins of tigers.”