Thailand continues to be a trafficking hub of pangolins despite increased efforts by government officials to curb the trade along a major Southeast Asian smuggling route to China.
Live pangolin smuggling routes start in Indonesia, we have learned. A source familiar with the trade has told us that smugglers typically pass through three custom checkpoints in Songkhla province – Sadao, Padang Besar and Banparakob – from Malaysia.
Syndicates collaborate with corrupt customs and immigration and police officers on both sides of the border, the source said. The person also told us that smugglers have switched from lorries to passenger cars to avoid increased checks.
Syndicates pay drivers to take the animals from Songkhla at the Malaysian border through Suratthani and Prachuap Khirikhan up north to the regions bordering Laos.
In interviews, officials assert that smuggling through Thailand has been if not eradicated, then at least mostly suppressed. Officials say that their increased efforts, including better coordination among enforcement agencies, has forced syndicates to search for alternative routes and avoid the kingdom altogether.
“We have succeeded in prevention and suppression, but if our neighbouring countries are facing smuggling the problems continues to exist and will never be solved,” said Thailand’s top wildlife protection official, Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, in an interview with ThaiPublica.
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Somkiat, the director of the division of wild fauna and flora protection at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, also said that the problem is far more complex.
The transnational nature of syndicates makes cracking down on them difficult, said Somkiat. The kingdom has increased efforts to working with its neighbours Malaysia and Laos, he said. The collaboration encompasses information sharing and training, “The prevention and suppression of pangolins smuggling cannot be done by any single country,” he said.
Somkiat said that restaurants in Bangkok offering pangolins had also been closed.
“We cannot say that there is no smuggling through the country at all,” he said. “But the seizures decreased significantly. In 2017, there were six cases, with 184 pangolins. In 2018, the seizure decreased to four cases, with 156 pangolins.”
Chaiyut Kumkun, a principal advisor of Thailand’s Department of Customs, also said that seizures of pangolins had fallen in recent years. The authorities have seized 861 live pangolins weighing 8,103 kilograms and 587 kilograms of scales between Oct 2014 and July 2019, according to data provided by Chaiyut. The estimated value of the pangolins and scales was over 100 million baht, or more than US $3.2 million.
Another attempt to curb the trade is the threat of harsher punishment for smugglers, officials say. Under the previous law dated from 1992, a conviction for illegal smuggling could lead to a fine of not more than 40,000 Baht and up to four years of imprisonment.
Under a law amendment that will take effect in November, penalties will be increased significantly, entailing up to 1 million Baht fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years.