Despite Thailand’s efforts to address wildlife crime, there are still challenges in curbing illegal trade in endangered species.
In June 2022, Ginny, an ageing, overweight Asiatic black bear, was rehomed from her concrete enclosure in the defunct Phuket Zoo to a wildlife sanctuary. Months later, in vastly superior living conditions, she has lost weight and her health has improved.
Ginny, along with another bear and 11 tigers, were the first animals to be protected under Thai wildlife protection laws enacted in 2019. The laws were a significant upgrade from existing laws, but the slow pace of change shows how much more work there is to protect the wildlife within Thailand’s borders and beyond.
The demand for products made from animal parts is driving some species to the brink. China is particularly known for its appetite for endangered species products, especially for traditional Chinese medicine. More than 20,000 African elephants and 150 tigers are killed each year due to demand from Asian consumers for ivory and tiger parts.
Thailand is a convenient hub for the illegal wildlife trade and a significant contributor to wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. Tonnes of African ivory, pangolins, and more than 1,000 other live animals intended for the black market have been seized at Thai airports in recent years.
Thailand attempted to strengthen wildlife protection in November 2019 by introducing the Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act. This act imposes harsher penalties for trafficking, including a new category for non-native animals listed in the UN’s CITES convention, and increased penalties for wildlife crimes. This act, along with the National Parks Act, aims to deter such crimes by setting some of the most stringent penalties in the region for illegal wildlife trafficking. Together, the acts aim to fortify protection in key areas for wildlife, wild plants and other living organisms. In most cases, the jail terms for these crimes have been extended to up to 20 years.
The 2019 Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act replaced the 1992 Act, which was outdated and inadequate. USAID Wildlife Asia had been collaborating with the Thai government since 2016 to revise the 1992 Act and based the stronger, modernised version on its “Scaling Efforts to Counter-Wildlife Trafficking Through Legislative Reform” policy tool.
The Thai government has pledged to ensure that any wild animals taken into custody will receive adequate care, with efforts made to return them to their natural habitats. If this is not possible, the animals will then be placed in permanent living arrangements that meet their needs.
It was under this provision of the revised Act that the tigers and bears were rescued from the Phuket Zoo, which was shutting down due to financial difficulties, and handed over to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand sanctuary, a non-governmental organisation based in Phetchaburi.
The animals were too old, sick or injured to be returned to the wild. The tigers and bears, freed from concrete cages, have a chance to live in quasi-natural environments with proper care and veterinary attention.
However, according to Alexandre Chitov, an assistant professor at Chiang Mai University, the Act still falls short. After investigating the legal challenges to more collaboration between Thailand and China to curb the illegal trade of endangered species, he found it relied too heavily on an administrative permit system which lacks definition and is susceptible to abuse. There are also no legal penalties for officials who abuse their authority.
The law addresses illegal trade only and fails to address the destruction of natural habitat. To effectively combat illegal trade, possession, and abuse of administrative powers in the protection of endangered species, he says a broader policy of criminalisation is needed.
Despite the 2019 Act being designed to regulate both physical and online trade of wildlife products, research by Jennifer M. Pytka and her colleagues has found Thailand remains a major hub for illegal online trade of these products. They studied the impact of the possession ban under the Wildlife Act on online trade and found a significant number of wildlife products were being advertised for sale on online auction sites and social networking sites.
At least a quarter of the Thai-based products they documented were offered for sale without proper registration, a violation of Thailand’s wildlife laws. One reason for this is the rapid growth of Facebook in Thailand since 2010, which has become one of the largest and most commonly used platforms for illegal online trade of wildlife products.
Thailand is making progress in wildlife protection, but there is room for improvement, particularly with regards to transnational organised wildlife crime. Thailand can better combat criminal networks that exploit the planet’s natural resources by making slight modifications to its legal framework. The focus should be shifted from domestic borders to the larger supply chain. As a leader within ASEAN, Thailand has the potential to establish itself as a global champion in the fight against transnational wildlife crime.
Chomkate Ngamkaiwan is a PhD candidate in criminology, justice administration and society at Mahidol University, Thailand. She is a recipient of the Royal Golden Jubilee PhD Scholarship funded by the National Research Council of Thailand. Her research interests include transnational organised crime, environmental crime, and corruption.