Tiger Cub Hidden in Toys in Suitcase at Bangkok Airport — wildlife smuggling in Thailand

Photo copyright Willowgrove, Creative Commons license

Wildlife smuggling in Thailand is rife

Customs officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand yesterday discovered a live tiger cub stuffed in a suitcase with a lot of cuddly toy tigers.

A Thai woman had attempted to smuggle the two-month-old cub out of the country and into Iran, by drugging it and carrying it in her luggage. Thai customs officials foiled the wildlife smuggler when they scanned the bag and the x-ray showed the beating heart of a real tiger cub.

The suitcase was opened and the still-drugged tiger cub discovered. The cub is now being taken care of by a Thai animal wildlife rescue center.

As a long-term resident of Bangkok, Thailand however, the news someone was trying to smuggle a live baby tiger out of the country isn’t surprising. Thailand has one of the biggest illegal wildlife trades in the world and with the Thai government not able to spend the money needed to stop it, it is likely to continue.

In Bangkok, every Thai and foreign resident knows the easiest place to buy or trade illegal wildlife is Chatuchak Weekend Market.

One of the largest outdoor markets in the country, Chatuchak is a fabulous place to buy everything, with most of the items there completely legal and legitimate to buy.

However, Chatuchak also has an underbelly the Thai government has been trying to get a handle on for years. In the animal section, amid the cages of puppies, rabbits, cats and mice you can also buy rare snakes, exotic lizards, wild birds and slow loris – species that are illegal to sell, trade or transport outside of Thailand.

Some of this wildlife smuggling in Thailand is hidden in back rooms or even sold out of the trunks of cars or backs of vans. Some is right out in the open, as traders know the fine will only be around $1,000 and they make more than that off the sale of one animal.

Markets all over Thailand have similar operations illegally selling not only Thai wildlife but also wildlife smuggled in from Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and China.

In 2006, WildAid, a US-wildlife organization even set up a “spy group” to monitor Chatuchak Market and report any illegal wildlife trading. The group was made up of around 30 Thai students from universities around Bangkok, and their job was to find animals being traded illegally.

The students also worked to educate other Thais about the illegal wildlife trade in Thailand and how it is robbing their country of its wildlife heritage.

The reasons why Thailand has such a large illegal wildlife trade though are numerous and difficult to solve.

If traders are caught, fines are low and they are back in the same place selling illegal animals or birds the day after. The Thai government too doesn’t have the money to spend on an intensive anti-wildlife trafficking campaign, although it has been running what it can afford to run for years, as the country has so many other pressing problems.

Add onto that corrupt officials and police officers who are on low salaries (police in Thailand start out making an average of only 8,000 baht ($275) per month, with 20,000 baht ($625) the norm after 10 years service). That is why they supplement their income by taking bribes from wildlife traffickers.

Although illegal and morally wrong, it is also somewhat understandable as, even for a Thai, supporting a family on 10-20,000 baht a month is almost impossible.

That is why, when a Thai woman like the one stopped at the airport this week who probably only makes a few hundred dollars a month, will jump at the chance of smuggling a live tiger cub out of the country.

For the couple of thousand dollars she will be paid for her fee, that is several months salary for her, and only entails a couple of days out of Thailand. Besides, even if caught, she will only be given a small fine, which will be paid by the group she smuggles for, and spend a few days in jail.

The story of the two-month old tiger cub found in a suitcase in Bangkok had a happy ending. Unfortunately, the fate of many thousands of other animals, birds and reptiles smuggled into and out of Thailand is not so happy.

So, think of that if you ever try to buy illegal wildlife. Not only are you contributing to wildlife smuggling in Thailand, someone somewhere has made a lot of money on the deal, while needlessly smuggling and often killing creatures that should be living where they really belong – in the mountains, fields and jungles of south east Asia.

Not sitting in a cage in your living room.