Police have arrested a suspected wildlife trafficking kingpin said to be behind much of the illegal trade in Asia for over a decade, officials said. The arrest of Boonchai Bach, a Thai of Vietnamese descent, cracks open the “largest wildlife crime case ever” in the country, the anti-trafficking group Freeland Foundation said in a statement.
“It’s like catching one of the Corleones,” said Steven Galster, the founder of Bangkok-based Freeland.
Boonchai, 40, was arrested on Friday in Nakhon Phanom in connection with the smuggling of 14 rhinoceros horns worth US$1 million from Africa into Thailand last month, in a case that also implicated a local airport official and a Chinese and a Vietnamese courier, police said.
Boonchai allegedly ran a large trafficking network on the Thai-Lao border that spread into Vietnam. According to the Freeland Foundation, he and his family played a key role in a criminal syndicate that smuggled poached items including ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, tigers, lions and other rare and endangered species.
Police said Boonchai denied the charges against him. Under the wildlife law, he could face up to four years in prison and a 40,000-baht fine, but authorities say they are also considering money-laundering and customs violation charges that carry up to 10 years in prison.
“One of the largest known wildlife traffickers in a really big syndicate has been arrested,” said Matthew Pritchett, Freeland’s director of communications. “In a nutshell, I can’t think of anything in the past five years that has been this significant.”
Thailand is a transit hub for trafficked wildlife mostly destined for China, and was considered to have the largest unregulated ivory market in the world before it introduced the Elephant Ivory Act in 2014 to regulate the domestic market and criminalise the sale of African elephant ivory. Rhinoceros horns, pangolin scales, turtles, and other exotic wildlife are still repeatedly smuggled through the country.