Kham Daen could not make it. The cub died a month later after the rescue from wildlife trafficking last November due to its already poor health. Photo courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

Ill-fated Tigers at the Mekong’s Crossroads

Trafficking of tigers in the Mekong region, especially those in captivity, is unrelenting with an emerging consumption trend that puts the fate of baby tigers in a sober state. The existence of organised criminal networks, poor conviction rates, inadequate laws, and poor regulation of markets and legal commercial trade are all to be blamed amid rushes to overturn the course by concerned officials

The three-month-old tiger cub, Kham Daen (across the border), could not make it. After being rescued from the illegal wildlife trade by wildlife crime suppression officers last November, the cub could survive only a month later as its health had already been too weak when rescued. 

In spite of the intensive care of wildlife caretakers and veterinarians at the Protected Areas Regional Office 9 in Ubon Ratchathani province, the kid finally succumbed to pneumonia as the temperature sharply dropped during the winter, leaving the other three members of the same batch with wildlife officials to find their true source of origin.

“At this point, we have no idea yet what subspecies they are or where they were exactly from,” said Paro 9’s Director, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn.

In the middle of last November, Mr. Chaiwat and his officials at Paro 9 joined investigators from the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division and some local stations in a sting operation to suppress wildlife trafficking reported in his area. The operation has not only exposed the illegal trade of the four tiger cubs, but also unveiled the existence of the long-suspected cross-border trafficking of wildlife along the Mekong River, which has now posed a challenge to existing national and international regulations including CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Photos courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

According to Mr. Chaiwat, the officers had investigated the activity and learned that the trafficking ring was in operation as far as Chiang Rai province in the North down to Mukdahan province in the lower Northeast. So, they decided to hatch a sting, under which contacts were made several times for the purchase of tiger cubs believed to be prime victims of the trafficking ring.

On Nov 15, the officers managed to make an agreement to buy four tiger cubs worth two million baht with a 63-year-old man from Chiang Rai, believed to be among members of the ring. He agreed to hand over the tiger cubs claimed to be brought from Laos to the undercover officers. The man claimed that there was another foreign national named Li, who had brought the tiger cubs and handed them over to him around eight kilometres from Mukdahan’s border. 

As soon as the cubs were handed over to the officers at a petrol station, they arrested him immediately. The man, who claimed to be a retired police officer, denied that he was not part of the ring. He had bought the cubs and intended to raise them as pets at his home. The officers, however, did not believe him.

According to the examination of his passport, they learned that he had travelled across the borders both from Chiang Rai and Mukdahan provinces several times, and what was revealed in his video clips and other records seized during the arrest was even more shocking than the frail four tiger cubs packed in a basket seized from the front seat of a pick-up car.

The tiger cubs when first rescued in mid-November last year. They looked frail, with weights only around 2.7 to 3 kg or so. The cubs were later named as Mukda, Sawan, Kham Khong, and Kham Daen. Photos courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

Cross-border tiger trafficking

As seen by Bangkok Tribune, a few video clips from a mobile phone seized from the accused show several more tiger cubs being raised in locations claimed to be in Savannakhet province of Laos opposite to Mukdahan province of Thailand. One video clip shows a man was feeding several tiger cubs walking around on the floor with one baby bottle. The other clip shows over ten tiger cubs raised in a cramped environment of rectangular-shaped plastic buckets.

According to the officers’ in-depth investigation, the retired police officer had travelled with one companion to Savannakhet on Nov 14 to negotiate on the purchase of tiger cubs with some four foreign nationals; one Vietnamese and three Laotians. They were offered with six tiger cubs, but could buy only four of them due to the limited budget. The two had laid the deposit worth Bt 200,000 and promised to pay the rest. 

In the meantime, the officers also learned about the transportation of some Rosewood logs to trade with the tiger cubs as the buyers did not have enough money to pay the traders there. The tiger cubs were then transported on the boat back to Thailand before being handed over to them and then the undercover police. 

“It’s the trade of tigers with logs”, the officers termed this illicit act, which further puts wildlife trafficking into more complexity.

A video clip from the seized mobile phone of the accused shows more tiger cubs that were raised in Laos. Courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

Realising the situation, Mr. Chaiwat called for a meeting with Laos’ counterparts. On Nov 22, they held a meeting at Mukdahan’s border checkpoint to share updates and information regarding the case. 

Mr. Chaiwat urged his Lao counterparts to help investigate the case in Laos and arrest the rest of the culprits. Locations of more tiger cubs, estimated to be around 20-30 at least, also needed to be established and suppressed. The Thai officials had limited knowledge that it was just somewhere in Savannakhet and it could be where the retired police officer met with the traders, Mr. Chaiwat told his counterparts in the meeting.

Dr. Soontorn Theppunya, deputy director of Laos’ Wildlife Conservation Division in Savannakhet told his Thai counterparts as recorded in their meeting notes that Lao officials are also concerned about the plight of the tiger cubs, but have no idea yet where they are raised. They will investigate the case and issue an arrest warrant if they can locate them and the culprits as well as those facilitating foreign nationals and tiger nurseries.

Dr. Soontorn said Laos has no breeding sites for tigers. The animals, he added, are barely recorded in the country’s natural forests either, and Lao people don’t generally consume tiger meats or their parts, significantly because of their high prices that the people in general cannot afford.

It’s “highly possible” that the cubs were bred in Thailand and transported to Laos for nursery before being transported further to “a third country” to supply consumption there, he told the meeting, the point clearly suggests roles and relationships in cross-border wildlife trafficking in the Mekong region.

Mr. Chaiwat and his Laos counterparts met to discuss cooperation in cross-border wildlife crime suppression following the seizure of the four tiger cubs last November. Photos courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

Lao officials also shared some gruesomely emerging consumption patterns of these tiger cubs at the meeting. Once sold, tiger cubs will be boiled in hot water and stewed until dried. Their remains then will be cut into small pieces sized around a bottle lid and put in alcohol. This alcohol formula is believed to help boost energy. One piece of the cub’s remains is sold around Bt 2,000, according to the officials.

According to the in-depth investigation by Thai investigators, their conclusion shows a similar trend. As noted in their report, tiger cubs are bred in some tiger farms in Thailand and sneaked out of the country to Laos for nursery in order to elude law enforcement and facilitate the trade.

Thai, Vietnamese, Lao traders and “politicians” are involved in this black market. It’s has been pursued for a long time with law evasion across the countries and that’s the reason why it’s a cross-border activity, noted the investigators.

“They’re from us,” said a high-placed source close to the issue.

One of the five tiger offspring during the DNP’s seizure at a tiger farm in Mukdahan in late 2020. (File photo)
Credit: DNP

Tiger trafficking trends

Over the past few years, the global wildlife trade monitoring and policymaking advocacy organisation, TRAFFIC, has released reports showing unrelenting trends of wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia, especially in the Mekong region.

According to its calls in 2021 to accompany its 30 years of conducting research and investigations into markets in the region, the organisation noted that illegal and unregulated wildlife markets still continued to operate despite the presence of the pandemic of Covid-19, which has slowed down human activities extensively.

New circumstances like the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) established in many of the Lower Mekong countries have expanded over the years and become hotspots for the illegal wildlife trade, the organisation noted, with some names being cited including Boten and Bokeo in Lao PDR, and Sihanoukville in Cambodia.

Savannakhet, in fact, also has one such SEZ operating, but was not named in the report.

In its 2020 report, Southeast Asia: At the Heart of Wildlife Trade, the organisation cited factors contributing to the persistent trade. It pointed out that the existence of organised criminal networks moving wildlife contraband, poor conviction rates, inadequate laws, and poor regulation of markets and retail outlets were all factors that continued to allow illegal trade to thrive in the region.

Poor regulation of legal commercial wildlife trade also contributed to the region’s illicit trade problem, the organisation further noted, citing an example of wild animals being laundered as captive bred as an issue of concern.

“The region is a source, consume, and transit personified. Only political will at all levels of government and a willingness to act will break the grip of illegal trade chains and networks,” said one of the report’s authors.

The report named Thailand as a source for tiger trafficking.

The graphic shows global tiger trafficking trends from Jan 2000-June 2022. Credit: TRAFFIC

This year, the organisation has focused particularly on tiger trafficking over the span of 23 years as records are available. Apart from showing a worrying trend of trafficking of tigers worldwide based on seizures and incidents statistics, the organisation’s new report, Skin and Bones, shows an emerging trend of tiger trafficking from captive sources, and Thailand has been highlighted along with Vietnam as the top two countries with the most seizures of captive tigers.

Worldwide, an average of 150 tigers a year over almost 23 years (Jan 2000-June 2022) based on seized tigers and parts are recorded. This has been translated into a conservative estimate of 3,377 tigers confiscated in 2,205 incidents across 50 countries and territories, with 85% of tigers seized and 77% of the incidents (1,688) in the 13 Tiger Range Countries (TRC, Thailand included). More than 2,300 people were arrested for involvement in tiger trafficking, and 95% of them were within TRCs.

According to the organisation’s analysis, the data shows an increasing trend, and seizures in the first half of 2022 signalled the relentless pursuit of remaining wild tigers. India, home to more than half of the global wild tiger population, remains the top-ranked with the most incidents and number of tigers confiscated (759 incidents), followed by China (212), and Indonesia (207), said TRAFFIC. But in terms of tigers seized, Thailand was ranked second, followed by China.

TRAFFIC said TRCs in Southeast Asia in particular are struggling to protect their remaining wild tiger populations pressured by the trade. It’s also grappling with other trade problems, including captive facilities that supply the illegal trade, the organisation noted.

Thailand and Viet Nam, the organisation pointed out, have featured most prominently, with 81% and 67% of the total seized tigers in the respective countries suspected or confirmed to involve captive-sourced tigers over almost 23 years.

And when it comes to the more immediate data of the first half of 2022, Thailand, along with Indonesia and Russia recorded significant increases in the number of seizure incidents, compared to the previous two decades, the organisation noted, adding the frequency of whole tigers in seizures surged over the period or turning up in 39% of seizures compared to recent years.

TRAFFIC also cited an interesting record of online tiger trafficking, saying there is a significant trade in tiger parts online in six Southeast Asian countries studied. 675 social media profiles trafficking in tigers were identified, 75% of which were Viet Nam-based accounts.

One of the cubs rested at Paro 9 office after the rescue. The cubs have now grown up and need new facilities to facilitate their growth. Photo courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

New efforts

Nuwat Leelapata, director of the DNP’s Wildlife Conservation Division, said the department and Thai officials concerned have acknowledged concerns made by the international community. Recently, the staff from CITES, which regulates the trade of fauna and flora worldwide, paid a visit to the DNP to follow up on progress in what was agreed upon in the latest resolution concerning the conservation of and trade in tigers and other Appendix-I Asian big cat species.

Tigers are listed in Appendix I of CITES. This means any trade of tigers or their parts and derivatives is prohibited, except for research.

Under the resolution, Conf. 12.5 (Rev. CoP18) issued at CITES Cop 19 late last year, parties of the convention were called to fully implement the resolution, which also recommends a series of actions covering improved legislation, enforcement, record keeping and actions to prevent tiger parts and derivatives from captive breeding facilities from entering the illegal trade chain.

As noted in the resolution on the part of tigers in captivity, those Parties and non-Parties in whose territories there are facilities keeping tigers and other Asian big cat species in captivity are urged to ensure that “adequate management practices and controls are in place and strictly implemented, including for the disposal of Asian big cats that die in captivity, to prevent parts and derivatives from entering illegal trade from or through such facilities”.

Mr. Nuwat said the department has been attempting to plug some loopholes in tiger raising in captivity. So far, over 1,000 tigers are raised in over half of 43 zoos or farms nationwide and the most problematic issue about tigers in captivity is the fact that they can be bred and exchanged among zoos while monitoring and reporting on their new populations are still weak.

“By nature, it’s hard to detect tigers’ pregnancy, and we have no idea how many babies are born exactly if the zoos do not report straightforwardly. This is despite the fact that we require them to report to us changes in the tiger populations at their compounds within 24 hours. So, we will tighten the monitoring and reporting in our new regulations,” said Mr. Nuwat.

According to Mr. Nuwat, captive tigers can live longer than those in natural settings, or around 20 years, compared to 12-15 years of age of wild tigers. Once a female tiger is around three to four years old, she can breed a few times a year at least with 2-3 babies on average.

After Kham Daen died, the rest of the kids_Mukda, Sawan, and Kham Khong_ were then moved to the Bung Chawak wildlife centre for better care and would end up living there for their whole life. Photos courtesy of DNP/Paro 9

Mr. Nuwat said the department has come up with a new Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act B.E. 2562 (2019) to fix the problems related to wildlife conservation in the country including wildlife in captivity. Unlike the past, the new law will also come up with stricter regulations on the part of the ex-situ environment, with clear purposes for zoo registration and opening as well as tighter monitoring and reporting to accompany the permission.

Zoos with tigers will also be required to show clear purposes of animal raising as well as the plans to regulate their entire population at the compounds.

In addition, the department is also developing a DNA database for tigers in captivity to help trace their origins. Last but not least, Mr. Nuwat said, the new regulations will become more stringent in regulating such ex-situ compounds nationwide as they will carry criminal penalties based on the new law. 

Currently, wildlife officials rely largely on their administrative authority against the violators. Once the regulations are breached, officials can only issue an order to close a problematic compound temporarily, around 90 days, and if the breach is repeated, they can call for a permanent closure of such a compound. However, owners of the compound can fight back in an administrative court, the process which often takes time, Mr. Nuwat said.

“The question which is often asked is why they keep breeding them when they do not open their compounds to the public and these places become cramped. The fact is we have to allow them to run the compounds as the law doesn’t impose any prohibition. This follows the prime purposes of zoo opening, which are education and genetics conservation.

“What we need to do then is regulate these compounds more efficiently and proportionately to suit the purposes,” remarked Mr. Nuwat in response to the notion made on the most extreme measure of a total ban on tigers in captivity.

As for Mr. Chaiwat, he has planned to close one zoo in Mukdahan, which has over 40 tigers but some of them have unclear origins. It’s been over two years already since he first made a seizure and arrest at the zoo after the origins of some tiger cubs there could not be identified.

This special report is part of the Environmental Challenges in Recent Times series.