It was the middle of a bright day in 2010 when the buyer set off in a truck with a cage on the back to pick up a tiger. In the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, he picked up two traffickers, and they drove two hours southwest to Chaiyaphum.
On the side of a dirt road, they met another vehicle. The men took a live tiger cub out of the back of the car. Undercover officers who had followed the buyer using GPS arrived at the scene, and when they pulled out their badges and guns, the traffickers ran. Shots were fired in the air with demands for them to halt, and they were caught.
While the traffickers were held inside a nearby police station, officers searched the car and found bank records and an envelope with the name and address of the woman they were looking for: Daoruang Kongpitak. Officers opened up the glove compartment and found the vehicle registration, which had the name of her then husband Pol Lt Col Pichit Kongpitak, who was then a deputy superintendent of Nong Bua Daeng police station in Chaiyaphum.
The Freeland Foundation, an organisation that fights wildlife trafficking, started tracking Ms Daoruang around 2008, following her connections in a large number of arrests and seizures in the Northeast. "We put her on a link chart and it was clear she was a major broker," said Freeland executive director Steven Galster, who accompanied the 2010 police operation aimed at Ms Daoruang's alleged tiger trading operation and provided analytical support.
A series of operations were conducted against Ms Daoruang following the undercover sting, but the multiple charges against her never reached court.
Information about her background, business connections and alleged links to crimes were passed to the Anti-Money Laundering Office (Amlo) by Freeland and the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-Wen), an intergovernmental law enforcement network, in 2011. It was used by Amlo to freeze over 200 million baht worth of assets involving the trafficking syndicate in May 2014. But she has still managed to maintain a clean criminal record despite what investigators say is her web of connections.
"According to our evidence, we are quite confident that she is trafficking wildlife animals," said Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). "But she has government officials backing her up."
Ms Daoruang could not be reached for comment. The phone number listed in documents Spectrum obtained from the Business Development Department was out of service, as well as the number that she provided in a government website for registering migrant staff at her zoo. She did not reply to Spectrum's request for an interview sent through Facebook.
Pol Lt Col Pichit, Ms Daoruang's ex-husband, refused to provide Spectrum with her phone number and said she was never involved in illegal activities. When asked about the vehicle registration that was found in the car following the undercover sting by police, Pol Lt Col Pichit said the car was borrowed and denied involvement in the sale of the tiger cub.
ZOO AS A COVER?
Authorities believe Star Tiger Zoo in Chaiyaphum's Muang district is a cover for illegal international wildlife trafficking operations. Ms Daoruang is the sole director of Chaiyaphum Zoo Startiger Co, which operates the zoo, according to Business Development Department documents seen by Spectrum. The company was registered in 2011 as Star Tiger Zoo Co, which started with three shareholders and registered capital of one million baht.
Daoruang Chaiyamat image as shown on her Facebook page. Photo: www.facebook.com/daoruang.Chaiyamat
In March 2012, Ms Daoruang was listed as the company's director, and two years later raised the registered capital to 15 million baht, with Ms Daoruang holding 14 million baht worth of shares.
The company has operated at a loss since its inception, with its latest financial records from 2014 showing a five million baht loss on total revenue of 1.9 million baht.
The DNP and the Royal Thai Police Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Division (NRECD) raided the zoo in July 2011, confiscating two leopards it did not have permits for.
"The DNP received information from the NRECD following their undercover sting [in 2010 in Chaiyaphum] that money had been transferred to Ms Daoruang's bank account, so we suspected that the tigers might be coming from her zoo," said Athapol Charoenshunsa, who was then the director of the DNP's protection and suppression division.
At the same time as the two leopards were seized, DNA samples were also collected from two tiger cubs in an attempt by Ms Daoruang to prove they were the offspring of legally owned tigers.
In April 2012, Ms Daoruang was charged with illegal possession of wildlife for the second time, after DNA tests conducted by the DNP's wildlife forensic science unit found the two cubs were not the offspring of legally owned adults. Ms Daoruang was arrested and later released on 100,000 baht bail.
The public prosecutor dropped the charges in both cases due to insufficient evidence, according to several people familiar with the issue.
Also known as Daoruang Chaiyamat and by the nicknames Jay Dao and Jay, the 40 year old was born in Nhu Thanh district in Vietnam's Than Hoa province, according to information provided by Freeland. Her Vietnamese name is Le Luong, and she moved to Thailand or became a Thai citizen around 1987.
Freeland alleges Ms Daoruang became a major wildlife broker based in Chaiyaphum, buying and selling pangolins, tigers, leopards and other wildlife, as well as ivory.
A Freeland informant who was involved in the pangolin trade and has met Ms Daoruang multiple times told Spectrum she was involved in the illegal wildlife trade. He said Ms Daoruang would transport pangolins and tigers mostly to Vietnam.
The NRECD, which investigated Ms Daoruang and was responsible for filing several charges against her, declined to comment.
RUNS IN THE FAMILY
When Ms Daoruang was not prosecuted, Freeland and Asean-Wen took their information about her to Amlo in 2011. In April 2014, police arrested her brother Kampanart "Sia Tang" Chaiyamat, who was caught with 4.7 million baht in cash, which he admitted to police, according to Amlo, was to help sponsor the illegal logging and smuggling of endangered rosewood trees from several of Thailand's eastern national parks.
According to Amlo records seen by Spectrum, Mr Kampanart had previously been arrested for possessing 143 pangolins and was sentenced to one year in prison. His mother was also convicted of the same offence and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The Nakhon Ratchasima police investigation that netted Mr Kampanart helped Amlo connect the criminal dots between the family members. It resulted in the seizure of over 200 million baht worth of assets related to Mr Kampanart and his syndicate, including land, bank accounts and insurance taken out by Ms Daoruang, according to the records.
Last month, a man was arrested at the Khon Kaen house of Pongpat Chaiyamat, another of Ms Daoruang's younger brothers. Si Chomphu police said a man was charged with the possession of bear paws and rosewood. Mr Pongpat was not charged.
Amlo declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a recent change in management. In 2014, Amlo said it believed Mr Kampanart's smuggling operations also allegedly involved rare animals, believed to be sourced from Star Tiger Zoo.
Although the zoo itself is not listed among Ms Daoruang's assets seized by Amlo, an Amlo source involved in the case told Spectrum that the listing includes land and buildings on the location of the zoo, excluding live animals. However, Amlo regulations allow the suspect to seek permission to use the land, which is probably why the zoo is still operating.
The Civil Court ruled in November last year for the assets to be owned by the state on suspicion that they were obtained through money laundry, but Mr Kampanart has since appealed the ruling, said the source, who asked not to be named because she is not authorised to speak to the media.
A former DSI official who is now working with Freeland said the zoo is believed to be a transit point for wildlife trafficking. He said the location of the zoo is ideal because it is halfway between Bangkok and Laos, a major transit point for wildlife smugglers.
Regardless of the previous tiger confiscations and connections between Ms Daoruang and her family, Mr Adisorn of the DNP told Spectrum the zoo's licence can only be revoked if the court rules she is guilty of wrongdoing. "As long as she is not prosecuted, she is considered innocent. Right now, she is still on our watch list," he said.
Star Tiger Zoo is among 30 tiger farms in Thailand, which hold almost 1,500 tigers in captivity, according to Edwin Wiek, director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.
Kept caged: A wild tiger is locked up during a raid on the Star Tiger Zoo in April 2012. Photo: Freeland Foundation via EPA
Tigers are a protected animal under the 1992 Animal Preservation Act and cannot be obtained from the wild. Before the law came into effect, an amnesty period of 90 days allowed people to register animals in their possession.
In 2007, Thailand, as a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), adopted a resolution in which all parties concluded that the intense breeding of tigers for commercial use was to be stopped. Despite that, there are 1,475 tigers in tiger farms around Thailand, up from 661 in 2007, according to Mr Wiek.
"Thailand just like Laos, Vietnam and China have basically not kept their promise under this agreement," said Mr Wiek. "These farms have no tourists coming in and [have] breeding facilities purely for commercial use."
This is because although tigers cannot be bought and sold under the Animal Preservation Act, facilities licensed as zoos are allowed to breed tigers as long as they have obtained a permit. "Instead of curbing demand, [these zoos] stimulated it, and provided a laundry for the illegal trade," said Mr Galster from Freeland. "It's very easy to sell them out of the back door without people knowing. And they will pay officials to make sure no one is arrested."
Earlier this month, police started to inspect 30 tiger zoos nationwide as authorities expand their investigation into illicit wildlife trafficking following the raid on the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province. The DNP removed 137 tigers from the temple after years of allegations of wildlife trafficking and animal abuse.
But Mr Galster said the incident in Kanchanaburi is "just the tip of the iceberg".
"It was just one place that was supplying to a major supply chain that has connections to corrupt officers, especially police," he said.
THE SUPPLY CHAIN
The business model is straightforward: an order comes in from China or Vietnam that tigers are needed. Brokers then purchase the tiger and arrange transportation via established routes through Laos or Myanmar to the destination.
Under investigation: Star Tiger Zoo in Chaiyaphum's Muang district, and zoo owner Daoruang Chaiyamat, aka Daoruang Kongpitak, are alleged to be the centre of a wildlife trafficking ring. Photo: www.facebook.com/daoruang.Chaiyamat
Mr Galster said since purchasing from tiger farms cost more money, about 10% of the trade in Thailand is tigers from the wild, which are more valuable and offer a bigger profit margin to brokers.
The main demand is for bones, which are used in traditional medicine. The bones are also made into sex pills, which are allegedly sold for US$300 (10,600 baht) in the US, according to Freeland, which obtained information from a trafficker.
"They believe if they eat a tiger, they inherit the quality of a tiger," said Mr Galster.
The bones are priced at US$1,000 per kg, with a tiger skeleton averaging 25kg. A whole tiger consisting of meat, whiskers, the skin and penis could fetch as much as $50,000.
Freeland's research team spoke to several people who worked inside the Tiger Temple and other smaller tiger supply nodes.
Inside sources said that Chinese buyers showed up occasionally to check on the product they were buying for their customers. Specifically, they provided guidance on how to prepare cubs for "tiger wine", an alcoholic concoction purported to boost sex drive.
Some Chinese buyers also work through Bangkok-based brokers to purchase tiger bone that is sometimes ground into powder for transport to China.
While some of the demand for tiger parts comes from Vietnam, most customers are in China, especially the lower strips of Yunnan, Guangdong and other provinces bordering northern Vietnam.
But Mr Galster said the demand has gone down in other parts of China as awareness has increased and younger people have become more environmentally conscious.
Freeland started working on the tiger trade in Thailand in December 1999, when they signed a memorandum of understanding with Plodprasop Suraswadi, the then director-general of the Royal Forest Department, to save tigers. The foundation started receiving information from various sources and accompanied police on operations.
After some time, they learned that the animals were going to a company called Xaysavang Trading Export Import in Laos, and its owner is believed to be a man known as Vixay Keosavang.
Mr Galster alleges that Ms Daoruang is a supplier to the company.
While Freeland tried to work with many authorities to close the company, including exposure in the International New York Times which published an investigation in 2013, efforts have failed due to the firm's connections.
"All of this trade is being done through registered companies. It means it's very organised. They're paying the taxes and if anyone looks at their books, it looks like they're doing what they're legitimately set up to do," said Mr Galster.
Freeland is now looking to provide information to a task force with Amlo and the National Anti-Corruption Commission about the supply chain, as well as current and former officials who have been protecting and gaining money from animal trafficking for many years.
"We know where they are, who they are and how this thing works. And we're sick of it. We've had some hits but nobody big went down," said Mr Galster. "We did this before and the information leaked, so we're not going do it until the NACC and Amlo are together."
Mr Galster claimed wildlife trafficking in Thailand continues to exist because of corruption among high-level DNP officials, police and politicians. Zoo facilities have to be registered with the DNP, which is also responsible for inspecting and making sure that they abide by the rules. Police officers play a role in transportation.
However, the DNP's Mr Adisorn said the government is sometimes reluctant to work with international NGOs due to their "hidden agenda". "Some NGOs try hard to find the government's blind spot in order to seek fame, resulting in large donations," he said.
Mr Adisorn brushed aside claims of corrupt government officials, saying that evidence supporting such claims should be sent to the DNP. He added that much of the information about animal trafficking has been obtained from the government.
"Every time we try to help authorities, they might try to bust someone like Ms Daoruang but they don't go to prison," said Mr Galster. "We need the NACC to make sure the good police have the support."
This story is the first in a series examining animal trafficking in Thailand and the region.
Eyes on the tigers: Freeland executive director Steven Galster says he has been following the Chaiyaphum network since 2008. Photo: Supplied
Changing their stripes: The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi was raided at the end of last month, but experts warn it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of wildlife trafficking in Thailand. Photo: Patipat Janthong