Thai police have arrested a Vietnamese national who they say ran an international network that trafficked massive quantities of elephant ivory, rhino horn and wildlife, threatening the existence of already endangered species in Asia and Africa for years.
Boonchai Bach, 40, was arrested Friday in Nakhon Phanom, a northeastern Thailand province that borders Laos, in connection to the illegal trafficking of 14 African rhino horns to Thailand in December, according to the Freeland Foundation, an anti-trafficking group that’s been tracking Boonchai and his family for years. The case, which involved $1 million worth of rhino horns, also implicated a Thai official, a Chinese smuggler and a Vietnamese courier, the Associated Press reported.
“This arrest is significant for many reasons. The confiscated items are high in value. And we are able to arrest the whole network involved, starting from the courier, the facilitator, the exporter," who planned to move the goods through the Thai-Laos border, Thai Police Col. Chutrakul Yodmadee said.
Boonchai has denied the allegations against him.
Thai authorities have been investigating his family for years. They zeroed in on Boonchai in December, when Thai customs officials found concealed rhino horns in cargo on a flight from Ethiopia. The flight was carrying Vietnamese and Chinese passengers, which raised suspicions among customs officials, according to the Freeland Foundation. A Thai airport official was later arrested and admitted to working with a Chinese smuggler and a relative of Boonchai. The three are being held in a Thai prison.
Freeland Foundation said new evidence led to Boonchai’s arrest this week.
“The arrest spells hope for wildlife. We hope Thailand, its neighboring countries and counterparts in Africa will build on this arrest and tear Hydra completely apart,” the group’s founder, Steven Galster, said, referring to a network of suppliers and buyers across Asia.
The Bach family, with Boonchai as the kingpin, led the illegal trafficking of exotic Asian and African wildlife, including elephant ivory, rhino horns, pangolins, tigers, lions and other endangered species, to major dealers in Laos, Vietnam and China, according to the Freeland Foundation. Authorities also believe the Bachs were the main supplier of Vixay Keosavang, a Laotian wildlife dealer dubbed the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking” in a 2013 New York Times story.
According to authorities, the original leader of the Bach family’s trafficking ring was Bach Van Lim, Boonchai’s older brother. In 2005, he passed on some of his authority to Boonchai, who operated headquarters in Nakhon Phanom. Contraband was brought from there to Laos through the nearby Mekong River and was transported to Vietnam and China, the Freeland Foundation said.
Boonchai could face up to four years in prison and a fine of 40,000 baht ($1,300), the AP reported. Authorities also could charge him with money laundering and customs violation, crimes that could add a sentence of up to 10 more years.
Thai police have been cracking down on the country’s ivory trade for years. Officials announced in July that they have seized more than 400 elephant tusks and fragments in a single case.
“We have made serious efforts to block elephant ivory from being smuggled into the country and sent to another country. . . . If we block ivory from being smuggled out of the country, then we will destroy it. We have been able to effectively arrest more and more suspects with tangible results,” Deputy Police Commissioner Gen. Chalermkiat Sriworakhan said in July, according to the AP.
Thai authorities also had frozen $37 million in assets linked to the trafficking of tigers in the northeast of Thailand. In 2016, authorities seized bank accounts and assets of a Thai national who was convicted of trafficking rhino horns in South Africa.
Days before Boonchai’s arrest, Thai authorities seized 326 pounds of African elephant ivory, including three large tusks, worth around $469,800 from a Bangkok airport.
Ivory, which comes from elephants’ tusks, is used as jewelry, ornaments, medicine, chopsticks and others. Markets in the United States and Asia, particularly in China, fueled demand, according to a 2015 international study conducted by National Geographic, and that resulted in the death of about 30,000 elephants every year.
Last spring, China shut down dozens of its licensed ivory facilities, a move that some see as a sign that the country intends to help put an end to the ivory trade.
In November, the Trump administration announced it will reverse an Obama-era ban on importation of elephant-hunt trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. President Trump later decided to keep the ban in place, at least for now, following protests from animal rights groups.