Damage from forest abuse hits B100 billion
Cops struggle to curb illegal logging activity
More than 23,000 suspects have been arrested since 2015 on suspicion of engaging in illegal logging and poaching wild animals, costing the state an estimated 100 billion baht in losses, a government official said Thursday.
While the total number of arrests, and the amount of rare wood and protected species that have been seized were viewed as "satisfactory", more work is needed as many of the masterminds behind much of this criminal activity remain at large, said Natural Resources and Environment Minister Surasak Karnjanarat.
Chalida Suphanthamat, a 40-year-old Chinese businesswoman who goes by the name "Mulan", is high on a list of wanted suspects.
She stands accused of helping a transnational gang smuggle precious wood out of Thailand for sale overseas.
Officials will now proceed with tougher measures against business people, influential figures and state officials who are found to be behind many forest and wildlife-related offences, according to Atthaphon Charoenchansa, the deputy chief of the Royal Forest Department.
He said the Mulan case is among his department's top priorities.
Ms Chalida joined the wanted list after officials raided a workshop in Surin's Kap Choeng district late last month and confiscated a vast amount of wood, including phayung or Siamese rosewood.
Investigators suspect she was involved in illegal logging.
A deeper probe determined that her gang appeared to have links with wood-processing plants in Surin and other provinces, Mr Atthaphon said.
The other areas include Surin's Buachet district, tambon Phochai in Nong Khai's Muang district, and Chai Nat's Hankha district.
Details of her ties to the provinces were not disclosed.
Mr Atthaphon vowed to locate and arrest Ms Chalida and her accomplices. She was arrested in 2012 in connection with 1,700 phayung logs in 2012.
She escaped legal action as prosecutors at the time decided not to indict her due to insufficient evidence.
Investigators said she is the former wife of retired senior air force officer AVM Surachai Khlongthet, who is also suspected of having engaged in the illegal wood trade.
Officers said the 63-year-old officer is believed to have rented a warehouse where 412 logs of wood worth 36 million baht were hidden. Though the man was released on bail after questioning, he is still the subject for a larger probe.
"We'll keep marching forward until all these masterminds and their accomplices are brought to justice," Gen Surasak said. His ministry has handled nearly 60,000 cases since 2014.
It has also managed to seize 1.3 million logs and sheets of wood, and over 3,000 wild animal specimens and over 10,000 carcasses.
Wildlife officials have also managed to reclaim forest areas covering more than 726,366 rai, Gen Surasak said.
The latest efforts are part of a broader goal as the government has gone on record as saying it intends to increase the total area of national forests to 55% of the country's land by 2037.