The joint wildlife crime suppression taskforce has seized at least five tiger offspring previously suspected of having no lawful origins from a tiger zoo in the Northeast today, renewing concerns about the prevalence of wildlife trafficking activities long speculated in Thailand’s private zoos
The operation led by the DNP’s special taskforces, Wild Hawk and Phaya Suea, under the instruction of the DNP’s Wildlife Conservation Office, has found that those five tigers at the Mukda Tiger Zoo and Farm in Mukdahan Province have no blood relationships with their claimed parents, based on DNA checks.
The DNP’s veterinarian team went to collect blood samples from the five tigers in late August, with the consent of the zoo’s owner. The samples of the first three tigers; Khao Yum, Khao Khlam, Khao Chao, claimed to belong to Father Hai Lap and Mother Hai Thong, were sent to two DNA testing labs of the DNP and of the Justice Ministry for double checking of the testing. (The DNP Wildlife Forensic Science Unit (DNP-WIFOS) and the Central Institute of Forensic Science).
The two labs reported the department in late September and early November respectively that the three tigers share no blood relationship with Hai Lap and Hai Thong. The three tigers’ DNAs were also compared with those of other 20 tigers in the same zoo, and they are not genetically related to any of them.
Another offspring of the pair, Khao Niaw, was found dead, having only its cut-off head. It would be subject to further examination, according to Director of the Protected Area Regional Office 9, who led the task force, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn.
The other two tigers; Khao Mao and Khao Plueak, claimed to belong to the different pair of Father Dodo and Mother Mafueang, are still in the process of DNA double-checking by the two labs. The initial DNA test result from the DNP-WIFOS has shown that the two tigers too have no blood relationship with their parents.
Mr. Chaiwat said the officials would wait for the lab result from the CIFS to verify the DNA testing for the two tigers before taking further action.
For the first three tigers, the officials would take legal action against the zoo’s owner as there are no lawful proofs of their origins, thus having violated the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act B.E. 2562 (2019), for illegal possession of protected wildlife species under Section 17. This will carry the penalty of no less than 5 years in imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than Bt 500,000.
The zoo’s owner also reported false information in regard to the offspring’s births. So, this is additionally counted as having violated the Criminal Code under Section 137 for providing false information and Section 267 for misleading state officials to record false information.
The five tigers, meanwhile, would be transferred for care at Chulabhorn Wildlife Captive Breeding Center in Si Sa Ket Province.
Tracking the origins
Wildlife Conservation Office’s Director Sompong Thongsikhem said the department would consider suspending the zoo’s permit for no longer than 90 days. If the zoo is found to have violated the law again, the second permit suspension and the permit revocation would then follow, he said.
According to Mr. Sompong, zoo owners are obliged to report to concerned authorities about the births of their animals during their zoo operations. As having been suspected of having involved with some illegal wildlife trafficking activities, the department decided to investigate and trace back the zoo’s records on the births of the animals, especially the tigers there before having found some irregularities as such.
“It’s likely criminally organized,” said Mr. Sompong, adding it would even possibly be involved with international operations, but did not elaborate further.
Mr. Sompong said the department would next investigate further the origins of the seized tigers as there has been long speculated that private zoos have a role to play in wildlife trafficking here, especially in the so-called tiger zoos.
Of 49 private zoos under his office’s supervision, 32 are tiger zoos with 1,511 tigers, which have been reported to the department so far.
Speculated wildlife trafficking
What is of particular concern about these zoos is the scale of their operations. If they are large compounds and operations, their animals’ mass offspring could elude required reporting and be traded underground either between the zoos themselves or overseas, according to the source close to the issue.
The lucrative demand in the market still stirs such the mass operations, the source added, and it could add pressure on tigers in the wild, which become attractively targeted, one of the critical points often raised by international conservation community.
Tigers are under wildlife law protection here and their trades are banned under the law. They are also not allowed to breed here, except for their natural reproduction.
The notable case of the raid of the Tiger Temple or Wat Luang Ta Bua in Kanchanaburi a few years ago was a wake-up call for Thailand to pay particular attention to proper management of the private zoos here, including the tiger zoos.
DNP Deputy Director General Prakit Vongsrivattanakul said the department would strictly enforce the new version of the wildlife law, which requires stricter enforcement on the zoo operations. It is also in the process of developing the complete DNA databank for tigers in captivity to help officials enforce the law more effectively.
The deputy director general, however, raised a notion that the law could not yet be enforced upon animals brought from overseas, and this has prompted a loophole for holistic zoo management so far, citing the case of a number of foreign animals previously inspected at the same Mukda zoo, which had eluded legal action taken by the officials.
International conservation organisations including TRAFFIC and Panthera have praised the operation, viewing it’s an effort to suppress unlawful acts in an ex-situ environment, which is also a crucial part of wildlife conservation work.
Kritsana Kaewplang, Panthera Thailand Country Director, said the organization has been concerned about the possible link of private zoos in the country to wildlife trafficking and the impacts on animals in the wild. This latest case, she said, has reflected that the problem still exists.
Ms. Kritsana said the organization wishes to see a long-term policy and plan to deal with the issue as it’s the so-called ex-situ conservation that should be undertaken along with the in-situ approach.
“They need to be undertaken alongside,” said Ms. Kritsana.
The joint task force in today’s operation: The DNP’s Wildlife Conservation Office, the Protected Area Regional Office 9 (Ubonratchathani), the Special DNP Task Force on Combatting Illegal Wildlife Actions (Wild Hawk), the Special DNP Rangers Task Force (Tiger Squad, Phaya Suea), the Office on Combatting Illegal Wildlife Trade of Thailand (GEF-6), and other related agencies.
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