Thailand is working harder to stop wildlife smuggling, an illegal trade that is threatening populations of endangered animals throughout Southeast Asia. Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport is hosting a U.S.-funded training course for airport staff so they can better spot smugglers and prohibited cargo.
Most of the animals illegally trafficked in Southeast Asia come from Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia. They then go to markets in China, where exotic meats and parts from animals like the pangolin are considered to have medicinal value.
Other wildlife like the Slow Loris, are destined for the U.S., Japan, and Europe where they are sold as expensive, exotic pets.
Steve Galster heads the Freeland Foundation, an organization working to stop the illegal trade.
"It's probably the third biggest black-market form of crime in the world right now after drugs and guns," Galster said. "We've even found drug gangs in China, Burma, and other places in the region who have moved over from trafficking drugs into wildlife because the penalties are lower, the risk of getting caught is lower, and the profits are just as high. The profit margins, anyway."
Galster estimates global animal trafficking is worth up to $30 billion each year and at least a quarter of that is in Southeast Asia, much of it through Thailand.
Thailand wants to stop the smuggling through its borders, and at Suvarnabhumi airport is holding training classes for airport officials. The aim is to make them more alert at spotting trafficking.
But, instructor David Lawson says raising awareness about the importance of protecting wildlife is a big challenge.
"Put yourself in the place of a customs officer," he said. "He's looking for drugs, he's looking for firearms, he's looking for other smuggled articles, alcohol, you name it. He's also looking for human smuggling. And, now I come along and say you've got to be concerned about wildlife. That's a tough sell."
Customs and security staff told VOA before they took the course they knew very little about the laws on animal trafficking.
Pornphen Anandkul, an inspector with airport security, says they often catch passengers trying to take animals onto flights.
"This course is very helpful because we can gain knowledge about the species that are protected and prohibited from being exported. I wasn't very clear about this before," Pornphen said.
The United States' Agency for International Development is funding the classes as part of its support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Wildlife Enforcement Network.
Winston Bowman, the regional environment director for USAID, says ASEAN-WEN addresses transnational challenges important to U.S. foreign policy.
"When you talk about wildlife trafficking, you're not just talking about small-scale poaching," he said. "You're also talking about large-scale trafficking which also involves organized crime. And, so for us, ASEAN-WEN is nothing less than the rule of law, regional cooperation, regional security."
Thailand has taken the lead in developing the regional wildlife enforcement network and is confiscating hundreds of animals and carcasses every year.
But, like most countries in the region, Thailand has weak trafficking laws and low fines for those who are caught.
And, that means many more endangered animals will continue to slip past inspectors.