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June 23, 2017

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Activists seek Asian 'wildlife Interpol'

Asia needs a new network akin to Interpol to fight a "wildlife mafia" and the illegal multi-billion dollar trade in animals and plants, environmentalists said on Tuesday.

They argue traffickers are running circles around a 30-year-old global treaty to protect endangered species because it has no teeth to stop the trade in tiger skins worth up to US$15,000 or aloewood with a Bangkok street value of US$1,000 per kg.

"After drugs and arms, the illegal wildlife trade is the next most profitable form of black market business in the world. But most governments still treat it as a low priority," said Steve Galster, director of WildAid Thailand.

CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — has 166 member nations in a treaty that covers about 30,000 plants and animals.

It is best known for reducing poaching of African elephants by banning ivory sales in 1989 and has a virtual ban on trade in some other animals and plants.

But the illegal trade is booming because each nation is responsible for enforcement and there is no international body to ensure CITES is being implemented, Galster said.

The problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, a major supplier of exotic wildlife to China where demand from restaurants, medicine shops and private collectors has soared along with a surging economy.

Traffickers work across borders using complex smuggling routes through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

But there is no formal cooperation between law enforcement agencies against wildlife crime in the region.

"We are calling for a 'Wildlife Interpol'," Galster said of his group's proposal for a new regional law enforcement network that would see CITES task forces set up in each country to coordinate with their neighbors.

"They are not going to clean it up overnight, but they would go out and start arresting people".

The problem is most arrests involve poor poachers, while big traffickers get away, said Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of WildAid Thailand.

The few criminals who are prosecuted in Thailand face minor fines of up to 40,000 baht (US$1,000) or a short jail sentence. Corruption allows many to slip through the net.

WildAid cited the case of a notorious Thai wildlife trader caught red handed at least seven times, only to resurface a short time later.

"It's not like the drug trade where you have to be afraid in Thailand," said Galster, referring to the government's anti-drugs war in which more than 2,500 people were killed last year.

In fact, drug smuggling and wildlife trafficking sometimes go hand in hand.

Galster cited a case in Miami where customs officials found a boa constrictor stuffed with cocaine-packed condoms. More recently, smugglers stashed speed pills in a bear cage on the Thai-Myanmar border hoping the animal would scare off nosy border guards.

With Thailand due to host a global CITES conference next month, environmentalists are pressing the government to lead the way on setting up a regional anti-trafficking network.

Southeast Asian nations are expected to make a joint statement in mid-October with activists hoping for specific action and commitment on law enforcement, training and scientific research.

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