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Thailand Battles Illegal Wildlife Trade - 2003-12-13

The illegal trade in wildlife in Asia shows little sign of abating, despite public awareness campaigns and increased policing by countries in the region. Thailand is at the forefront of the battle to halt a trade that is decimating animal populations globally.

The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society says illegal global trafficking in animals is worth about $8 billion annually.

International organizations and governments in Southeast Asia have increased efforts to halt the region's share of the trade, which offers the lure of cash to impoverished communities.

Parts and meat from threatened species, including rhino horns, tiger skins, bear paws, and snake meat are highly valued in many Asian countries as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines and aphrodisiacs, or as gourmet foods.

The Wildlife Conservation Society says more than one million kilograms of snakes are imported into China annually, mainly from elsewhere in Asia, while Indonesia traffics in more than 350,000 birds each year.

Robert Mather, regional representative in Thailand of the World Wildlife Fund says, despite the extent of the trade, few governments have assigned it a high priority.

"In reality, on a global level, the illegal wildlife trade is second only to the illegal trade in drugs, and the most profitable illegal activity," he said. "It is just that that understanding has not really entered into the consciousness of higher-up policy makers."

Chris Shepherd, regional program manager of the Malaysia-based animal protection group, Traffic Southeast Asia, says the greatest demand is for animals whose existence is already threatened. "The more rare an animal becomes, often they become more valuable, more and more sought after in the international pet trade," said Chris Shepherd. "For example rare cockatoos or rare tortoises become more expensive, as they become harder to find."

But Mr. Shepard says greater international awareness of the trade is having an impact, especially as more animals are listed for protection under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

Thailand, which is set to host a global meeting of CITES in 2004, is a key trafficking hub for both exotic wildlife and the illegal global ivory trade. A WWF survey of hotels and retail outlets in Bangkok estimated that more than $4 million worth of ivory was available for sale in these locations.

While there is an international ban on African ivory, retailers in Thailand are able to exploit a loophole in Thai law that allows trade in the ivory of domestically-raised elephants.

After lobbying hotel operators, the WWF reported a dramatic drop in the amount of ivory available at Bangkok hotels. But there was little change in the amount on sale at retail outlets - still about $2 million worth.

In recent months, Thailand has been raiding popular markets and private zoos, where illegal wildlife is found.

The head of the Thai police department's forestry division, Major General Sawake Pinsinchai, led several of the raids. He spoke of his shock at the cruel state of the animals his troops found.

General Sawake says, during a raid in October, officials uncovered a slaughterhouse where poorly-maintained wild animals were being kept, along with carcasses, bones, tiger skins, and bear paws.

The secretary-general of Thailand's Wild Animal Rescue Foundation (WAR) Porpen Payakkaporn, expects a lull in the trade after the recent crackdown, but not an end.

"I think it might be quiet for a period of time, but the wildlife trade still will not stop in Thailand," said Porpen Payakkaporn. "And the problem [goes on] because some officials [are] involved in the illegal trade [so] its not very easy [to stop]."

Mrs. Porpen says, for an anti-trafficking campaign to be effective, efforts must be made to reduce demand for the animals, both locally and abroad.