Thailand's strategic location once earned it fame as the "crosswords of Asia". Then "hubs" became popular and the kingdom became the the respective hubs of medical tourism, regional aviation, luxury resorts, golf, fine food and more. Unfortunately, not all tags were as favourable.
The country's reputation as a transit route for human trafficking, widespread corruption and chronic political instability made also the list. As did the vile reputation for wildlife smuggling. But there was an attempt to rectify that flaw last weekend, when agents nabbed a passenger at Suvarnabhumi Airport whose suitcases were filled with baby leopards, panthers, a bear and monkeys. The animals had been sedated and were bound for Dubai. Investigations have revealed links to an influential politician and a shadowy animal trafficking network catering to a Middle Eastern market for rare and exotic pets. This was the most startling seizure since a drugged baby tiger cub was found in a suitcase last August and a woman arrested for trying to smuggle it aboard a flight to Iran. It also topped the scores of snakes, boxes of spiders, squirrels, lizards, an African grey parrot and one of the world's rarest tortoises intercepted in February before they could be flown to Indonesia. The most damning factor in that seizure was the suspect's claim to have bought them all at the Chatuchak weekend market just a short distance from the Thai wildlife protection offices, and the subsequent admission by enforcement officers that this was possible.
The continued existence of this animal market demonstrates the inadequacies of the toothless Preservation and Protection Act of 1992 as well as those responsible for enforcing it. There are pitiful rows of often sick puppies and kittens for sale. Nearby are the groups of wildlife traders who operate quite openly because the penalties do not scare them. Arrests have been made but the courts rarely issue harsh deterrent sentences, opting instead for affordable fines.
We can only look back with horror at the events of the past decade and the notoriety they have brought as one scandal followed another. There was the disastrous attempt to import 135 wild animals including zebras and giraffes from Kenya for the Night Safari Zoo in Chiang Mai, the clandestine export of up to 100 tigers to a Chinese zoo, the smuggling of orangutans from Indonesia to a private Thai zoo and the protracted delay in returning them, and the mishandling of an elephant-koala swap with Australia.
Proof that we have failed to learn from these mistakes is demonstrated by the current proposal to import polar bears to Chiang Mai Zoo. They do not fare well in captivity and especially not in a tropical country. The issue goes way beyond providing air-conditioning and a fake habitat. The scheme is heartless, wasteful and fraught with peril. In no way is it an appropriate sequel to the saga of Lin Ping, the adorable panda cub who has brought so much joy to young and old alike since her birth two years ago.
In light of the respect accorded to Lin Ping, it is all the more alarming to see the cruel multi-million-baht trade in rare species apparently thriving. The seizures at Suvarnabhumi, along with the interception this week of a vehicle smuggling 53 pangolins from the Burma border to Nong Khai, are encouraging but raise the question of how much else is getting through.
New initiatives to tackle wildlife smuggling should be high on the agenda of the new government to emerge after the election. Regrettably, the outgoing administration cannot count suppression of this evil trade among its successes.