Tiger, Elephant Parts Found in Thai Slaughterhouse Bust

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Thai navy officers and forestry officials display dead tigers and leopards seized after a raid on an illegal wildlife trade on the bank of Mekong river in That Phanom district of Nakhon Phanom province northeastern Thailand, Jan. 29, 2008

A man with blood on his hands is hard to ignore, even for Thailand’s police, whose reputation for diligence and crime busting is something less than sterling. So when two Bangkok cops spotted a man on a street last Saturday whose hands were caked in blood, they decided some tough questioning was in order. The man led them to a nearby house where they found a group of men cutting up two tiger carcasses, over 400 kilos of tiger meat, and bodies and body parts of zebras, crocodiles, wild buffaloes and an elephant. Police arrested seven men and a few days later apprehended the house owner and alleged ring leader, who is denying all charges.

The discovery of this gruesome animal charnel house came just a week after accusations surfaced that national park rangers were slaughtering adult elephants and selling their flesh to a “bush meat” restaurant, and their young to elephant shows where tourists are entertained.  The elephant is Thailand’s national symbol, but only about 2,000 in the wild remain, down from over 100,000 a century ago. It all adds up to a sad state of affairs in this Southeast Asian country for endangered species and the environment.

More: See TIME’s 2011 article on threats to Africa’s rhinos.

There is a bright side, however faint, to these recent revelations. “A decade ago, the Thai police wouldn’t even have considered what was going on in that house a crime,’’ says Patrick Brown, a Bangkok-based photographer who has spent the last ten years documenting the illegal wildlife trade and whose work will soon be published in a book titled Trading to Extinction. Unfortunately, Brown says, greater awareness by law enforcement and the public hasn’t made much of a dent in this dirty business. “It has only pushed the trade deeper underground, rather than reduce it or ended it,’’ he says.

Estimates are that the global trade in endangered species and wildlife is worth about $10 billion a year, according to the website of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). That makes it one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises, along with drug, weapons and people trafficking. The penalties, however, pale in comparison to those handed out to drug traffickers. “An ounce of rhinoceros horn sells for one-and-a-half times the price of an ounce of gold, which is at record highs,’’ according to Brown. “If the penalties for trafficking an ounce of rhino horn were the same as for an ounce of cocaine, it might make a difference, but the profits are still so huge that it will attract criminal networks.’’

Thai police say that the tiger and other animal parts were destined for China, the largest consumer of endangered species. As with other types of smuggling, Thailand’s strategic location, developed infrastructure, ease of movement and comparatively lax law enforcement make it an ideal transshipment point for contraband, including wildlife. But Thailand is also a growing producer of this particular contraband: an unknown but increasing number of private zoos, some of which are well-known tourist attractions, are suspected of supplying tigers and other endangered species to the traffickers. Some of these private zoos are allegedly under the protection of local politicians or “influential people” who stymie the work of the 439 officers in the Nature Crimes Division of the Royal Thai Police.

Most of us rarely ever see an animal whose species is endangered, except perhaps on a visit to a zoo, and so the issue can seem unimportant. But even zoos in developed countries are increasingly concerned that some of the animals they have purchased may have been sourced illegally from traffickers. It is a problem that is becoming harder to ignore. “If we lose our wildlife, we lose our environment. If we lose the environment, we lose everything,’’ Brown says. And if we do, the blood on our hands will ultimately be our own.

More: Why rhino horns are easy pickings in Europe’s museums.