Accused wildlife smuggling kingpin caught

Accused wildlife smuggling kingpin caught

Police process suspected wildlife trafficker Boonchai Bach on Saturday in Bangkok. (AP Photo)
Police process suspected wildlife trafficker Boonchai Bach on Saturday in Bangkok. (AP Photo)

Police have arrested a suspected wildlife trafficking kingpin said to be behind much of the illegal trade in Asia for over a decade, officials said Saturday.

The arrest of Boonchai Bach, a Thai of Vietnamese descent, cracks open the "largest wildlife crime case ever" in the country, the anti-trafficking group Freeland Foundation said in a statement.

“It's like catching one of the Corleones,” said Steven Galster, the founder of Bangkok-based Freeland.

Boonchai, 40, was arrested on Friday in Nakhon Phanom in connection with the smuggling of 14 rhinoceros horns worth US$1 million from Africa into Thailand last month, in a case that also implicated a local airport official and a Chinese and a Vietnamese courier, police said.

Boonchai allegedly ran a large trafficking network on the Thai-Lao border that spread into Vietnam. According to the Freeland Foundation, he and his family played a key role in a criminal syndicate that smuggled poached items including ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, tigers, lions and other rare and endangered species.

Police said Boonchai denied the charges against him. Under the wildlife law, he could face up to four years in prison and a 40,000-baht fine, but authorities say they are also considering money-laundering and customs violation charges that carry up to 10 years in prison.

"One of the largest known wildlife traffickers in a really big syndicate has been arrested," said Matthew Pritchett, Freeland's director of communications. "In a nutshell, I can't think of anything in the past five years that has been this significant."

Thailand is a transit hub for trafficked wildlife mostly destined for China, and was considered to have the largest unregulated ivory market in the world before it introduced the Elephant Ivory Act in 2014 to regulate the domestic market and criminalise the sale of African elephant ivory. Rhinoceros horns, pangolin scales, turtles, and other exotic wildlife are still repeatedly smuggled through the country.

In December, airport official Nikorn Wongprajan was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport after he was caught together with a Chinese smuggler and a Vietnamese courier with 14 rhino horns.

Nikorn admitted having been hired to send the horns to one of Boonchai's relatives, Freeland said, adding that the group helped police with information about Boonchai that led to his arrest.

"This network is connected to a group of moneymen who may be living outside the country. We are working to get arrest warrants out on those people as well," said PolGen Chalermkiat Sriworakhan, the deputy police commissioner.

Three years ago, authorities froze $37 million in assets linked to a tiger trafficking ring in the northeast, after an investigation helped by Freeland. In 2016, a court order seized bank accounts and other assets, including a house worth $142,000, belonging to Chumlong Lemtongthai, who was convicted in South Africa on rhino horn trafficking charges.

Chumlong was imprisoned in 2012 after being sent by the trafficking syndicate called the Xaysavang network -- which authorities say includes Boonchai -- to take advantage of South Africa's permit system for professional trophy hunts. He hired prostitutes to pose as hunters, and organised sham expeditions during which 26 rhinos were killed, according to court documents. Customs papers were then doctored for shipping the rhino horns to Laos.

The decision to go after Chumlong's assets was made only in 2016, after agents received training in asset recovery. The alleged Lao kingpin of the Xaysavang network, Vixay Keosavang, remains at large with a US bounty of $1 million on his head.

"We have been looking at this syndicate for over a decade now," said Onkuri Majumdar, a programme officer from Freeland. "They have tentacles all over Africa and Southeast Asia. They are responsible for the slaughter of thousands of endangered animals including rhinos and elephants. And let's not forget rangers in Africa who have died, killed by poachers financed by men like Boonchai."

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