Thai cops probe tiger trade

2011-07-14 21:02

Bangkok - Thai wildlife police on Thursday said they had discovered unregistered big cat cubs in a raid on a private zoo, raising suspicions that it was part of a smuggling ring.

Eight animals were discover in the operation earlier this week - four adult tigers, two tiger cubs and two leopard cubs - the Thai Nature Crime Police said in updated information, adding that official permits were only found for the older tigers.

Police colonel Kiattipong Khawsamang said DNA tests would be conducted on the tiger cubs, which the owner of the newly-built zoo, in northeastern Chaiyaphum province, said were the offspring of the older tigers.

But the zoo also failed to provide official documentation for the leopards and they were confiscated.

Kiattipong clarified earlier information suggesting the owner was male and said "the real ringleader is a woman".

Earlier the police colonel said the owner "tried to make illegal things legal" by setting up a private zoo and investigations had indicated the site was linked to trafficking.

Anti-trafficking group Freeland said the discovery "may confirm suspicions that the owner and other individuals connected to the zoo and related facilities have been laundering tigers, leopards and other endangered species".

The group, which supported the operation, said the unnamed zoo owner featured in a recent National Geographic Television film about the 15-month investigation into animal trafficking through Thailand.

Freeland said the zoo owner was probed after being linked to Sudjai Chanthawong, who was arrested in May and is suspected of being a kingpin in what could be the country's largest tiger trafficking ring.

Bloodstained money

Endangered species like tigers and leopards can be owned legally in Thailand as long as they are not sold, but Freeland said the zoo permit system "contains loopholes".

"As the law stands, police have to constantly and tirelessly find ways to outwit unscrupulous traders," said Freeland director Steven Galster.

"Based on tip-offs we have received, I am confident that if they keep looking, authorities will find more evidence and more bloodstained money."

Thailand is one of just 13 countries hosting fragile tiger populations, which are on course for outright extinction by 2022, the conservation group WWF warned last year during the Year of the Tiger.

The group said decades of trafficking and habitat destruction had slashed tiger numbers from 100 000 a century ago to just 3 200 today, with the Chinese the world's biggest consumers of tiger products despite global bans.

Thailand is a hub of international smuggling and the wildlife group Traffic has said illegal animal sales at Bangkok's huge Chatuchak market continue "every weekend on an open basis" despite complaints to authorities.