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Thai police bust leading wildlife trafficker

  • Thai police have arrested Boonchai Bach, the alleged kingpin behind one of the world’s biggest and most notorious wildlife trafficking syndicates.
  • Bach and his family operation have been the target of authorities and anti-trafficking groups for more than a decade for moving vast quantities of rhino horns and elephant tusks to markets in China, Vietnam and Laos, via their hub in Thailand.
  • One of the family’s main customers remains at large, however. Vixay Keosavang, said to be the most prominent wildlife dealer in Southeast Asia, is beyond the reach of Thai authorities, in Laos.

Police in Thailand last week detained a key figure in one of the world’s most notorious wildlife trafficking syndicates, accused of smuggling large numbers of rhino horns and elephant tusks from Africa to Asia.

Boonchai Bach, who also goes by the name Bach Van Minh, was arrested Friday at his operational base in Nakhon Pathom province, for allegedly trafficking 14 rhino horns from Africa to Thailand last month. The case also implicated a Thai official, a Chinese national and a Vietnamese courier.

“This arrest is a significant for many reasons,” police colonel Chutrakul Yodmadee said in a statement.

“The confiscated items are high in value. And we are able to arrest the whole network involved, starting from the courier, the facilitator, the exporter who [planned] to export goods through Thai-Laos border. We even got the moneyman [investor] behind the gang. That means we are able to arrest the whole network.”

Boonchai Bach, 40, was arrested last week by Thai authorities over alleged attempts to smuggle more than a dozen rhino horns. Photo courtesy of Matthew Pritchett/Freeland.

Boonchai, a 40-year-old Vietnamese who also holds Thai citizenship, has been accused of operating an international trafficking network on the Thai-Laos border that expanded into Vietnam.

The anti-trafficking group Freeland Foundation has described Boonchai and his family as the main suppliers to Southeast Asia’s major dealers in Laos, Vietnam and China, including the notorious Vixay Keosavang. Freeland had tracked the family since 2003, collecting evidence on their operations, which included transporting tiger bones across borders.

From 2010 to 2013, Freeland and Thai law enforcement authorities identified Keosavang as the region’s most significant wildlife dealer. However, he remains out of reach of Thai authorities, in Laos. In 2013, the New York Times ran an exposé of Keosavang’s animal-smuggling syndicate, which the group and Thai officers codenamed “Hydra.”

In the Times article, it was revealed that convicted Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai had supplied Keosavang with large amounts of rhino horn from South Africa, using Thai commercial sex workers to pose as hunters and sign fraudulent hunting and export documents. Lemtongthai was arrested by South African authorities in 2012 and sentenced to an unprecedented 40 years in prison.

The U.S. government in 2013 put up a $1 million reward to end Keosavang’s operations.

In 2014, Freeland and Thai investigators learned that Keosavang’s supply chain was fed by the Bach family, who had representatives in Africa, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Lemtongthai was one of them, and had been hired by the Bachs who were working with Keosavang to order dozens of rhinos at a time to be killed for their horns, and to then transport them to Laos, via Thailand, for onward sale to Vietnam and China.

In early December 2017, officers at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport allowed suitcases containing the rhino horns to pass through customs, then followed them to Nikorn Wongprajan, a Thai officer allegedly involved with the Bach network. Wongprajan admitted to being hired to pass the horns from the airport to a Bach family member at a nearby apartment, leading to their arrest along with the Chinese courier.

Freeland said the Thai airport officers “are to be congratulated for breaking open the country’s largest wildlife crime case ever.”

“This arrest spells hope for wildlife,” said Steven Galster, the founder of Freeland. “We hope Thailand, its neighboring countries and counterparts in Africa will build on this arrest and tear Hydra completely apart.”

Rhino horns can fetch an estimated $100,000 per kilogram (about $45,360 per pound). Thousands of rhinos in Africa are killed each year, both by legally sanctioned hunters and by poachers, and most species are listed as “Critically Endangered,” or being on the brink of extinction.

The illegal trade in wildlife and their body parts is worth an estimated $23 billion a year, and is the world’s most lucrative black market industry after drugs, human smuggling and arms trafficking. Despite this, international law enforcement has been slow to crack down on it.

Banner image: Rhinoceros eating at a national park in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Komencanto/Wikimedia Commons.

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