While it is well known that Thailand is a major hub for illegal international wildlife trade, customs authorities and inadequate police enforcement cannot curtail the influx of endangered animals that is both hastening their extinction and decimating local ecosystems.
Last week, 431 turtles and other rare reptiles were stuffed into four suitcases and smuggled into Bangkok International Airport. They were only discovered because the owner of the suitcases, an Indian traveler from Bangladesh, never claimed them.
Among the stash were Gharials, crocodiles native to India and Indian Star Tortoises. Unlike others of their ilk, Gharials only eat fish with their very sharp teeth. It is estimated that there are only about 200 adult breeding pairs left in the wild.
The Indian Star Tortoise is found in dry areas and scrub forest in India and Sri Lanka and is quite popular in the exotic pet trade. These animals generally don’t live in captivity, as they are very difficult to raise. They are finicky eaters, gain weight very slowly and most die within the first few months of life. The capture of this tortoise from the wild is illegal in India.
One of the reasons the smuggling of endangered species is so rampant lies in the nature of the smugglers themselves. They do not procure their animals via illicit black markets, which is why they are so difficult to apprehend and prosecute. Instead, these criminals purchase them legally at Bangkok’s sprawling outdoor Chatuchak market.
In protest, a local environmental organization published an open letter questioning, “how wildlife can be openly sold every weekend” just down the road from the offices of the Thai authorities who regulate the illegal trade.
The large international airport at Bangkok is unfortunately the perfect matrix for both the import and export of rare animals because of its lax border policies with its southeastern neighbors.
Lizards, big mammals and snakes are in great demand in the Middle East where they are considered exotic pets. Tiger bones, in particular, as well as bear gall bladders are exported to China, Hong Kong and Singapore for medicinal uses.
Thailand must change its international trade policies and strengthen sanctions at its borders if it is ever to stop this terrible, barbaric practice.