Thailand wants to shed its image as a place where many types of wildlife — turtles from Madagascar, marmoset monkeys from South America, baby sun bears, exotic birds — are for sale, an international trade driven by the global market in exotic meats and rare pets.
During the past two years, officials in Thailand have captured more than 46,000 animals from traffickers, vendors and trappers, more than double the 18,000 seized the two previous years.
However, now the government faces the quandary of what to do with all the creatures it has saved — a sort of Noah’s ark of endangered species, except that this ark would most likely sink under the weight of all the elephants, tigers, bears and monkeys.
“The more we arrest, the more animals we have to take care of,” said Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
While many say that porous borders, corruption and lax enforcement remain problems, the crackdown comes as Thailand is set to host a major meeting next month to discuss the main international agreement on trafficking.
The burden of taking care of seized animals was underlined in October last year, when 16 malnourished tiger cubs were recovered from the back of a smuggler’s truck. Caretakers at the Khao Pratubchang Wildlife Breeding Center in Ratchaburi Province have been overwhelmed by the 24-hour care and the specialized food and medicine the cubs require.
“It’s like having a child — there are so many details,” said Sathit Pinkul, the head of the center.
“You always have to be around when they are hungry,” he said, imitating the meow of a needy cub. “We’ve become their personal attendants.”
The center houses 45 other tigers, 10 leopards and 13 other small felines known as fishing cats and Asian golden cats.
Wildlife centers across the country are already at capacity. A center near Bangkok houses more than 400 screaming monkeys. One in Chonburi Province has 99 bears, one who has been named Airport because she was rescued from a smuggler’s suitcase at an airport.
Thai law requires that the animals be kept as evidence until legal proceedings are completed — or for five years if no suspect is arrested.
Some of the animals can eventually be released into the wild, including common species of monkeys, snakes and pangolins, which are prized in China for their meat. (Many animal parts, including rhinoceros horns, are used in traditional Chinese medicine.)
The tiger cubs, raised by humans, face life in captivity.
“I’ve attended a lot of international meetings, and I’ve never heard about a tiger being successfully introduced into the wild,” Sathit said, adding, “They have less of a predatory instinct.”
The cubs are likely to live out their life span of more than two decades at the wildlife center, in cages that sit among the bamboo groves. They will be down the road from 11 orangutans who were abandoned as babies on Phuket, and a five-minute walk from the rare Fea’s muntjac deer that was shot by a hunter, but is recovering and holding onto the fawn she is gestating.
Not many zoos are interested in more tigers, Sathit said, and euthanasia is not considered an option.
“They are living creatures like us,” Sathit said. “We must take care of them.”
The center orders 1 tonne of chicken every week from a local slaughterhouse — which sometimes runs out of meat.
Feeding the birds and beasts at government centers across the country costs about 1.7 million baht, or US$57,000, a month. The Department of National Parks has established a fund to help defray the cost and receives donations, mainly from celebrities and wealthy Thais.
Some animals are easier to take care of than others. Caretakers at the wildlife center in Chonburi Province do not bother to lock the cage of the slow loris, a nocturnal primate with big round eyes that lives up to its name.
Monkeys are more problematic, particularly the variety known as the crab-eating macaque, which during a recent visit violently shook the bars of their cages.
“The maintenance staff spends their day fixing cages,” said Thanapol Kongsapsirianand, an official at the center.
Many monkeys have escaped from the Chonburi center and regularly raid the bird enclosure to steal food. They have also corrupted the pig-tailed macaques that live in the nearby jungles and taught them the finer points of burglary.
“The jungle monkeys were friendly before the caged monkeys taught them bad behavior,” Thanapol said.