Bangkok - A Bangkok luxury store owner was convicted today for breaching Thailand's wildlife protection law. The store owner, Mr Reyaz Ahmad Mir, an Indian national from Kashmir, pleaded guilty to charges of illegally importing and selling "shahtoosh" shawls made from the wool derived from poaching highly endangered Tibetan Antelopes (Pantholops hodgsonii).
He was sentenced to two years in prison and fined USD $600. In consideration of his guilty plea the Thai criminal court reduced his sentence to two years probation and a USD $300 fine. The court also ruled that the government confiscate all contraband shawls seized from the defendant. In this case, the shawls were worth at least USD $20,000.
A second and larger case against additional Bangkok-based traffickers in shahtoosh is pending.
The two high-profile international wildlife trafficking cases involved hundreds of shahtoosh shawls being smuggled from China, through India, and into Thailand. One shawl is normally made from the wool of 3 to 5 dead Tibetan Antelopes.
In July 2006, after four months of undercover work, the Thai government's wildlife crime task force raided several stores in Bangkok, arresting three Indian nationals on charges of illegally selling shahtoosh shawls. The vendors told undercover investigators that they normally sold the shawls to wealthy tourists. Over one hundred shawls were seized from two high-end Bangkok shops alone.
The Thai special task force was set up under the new "ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network" (ASEAN-WEN), established last year by the 10 countries of Southeast Asia to combat the region's wildlife criminals. Tip offs about the Bangkok shahtoosh traffickers were provided to the Task Force by the conservation groups TRAFFIC and Wildlife Alliance.
The case has since been closely monitored by wildlife law enforcement agencies around the world, which cooperated by providing information and support for Thai authorities as they prosecuted the illegal dealers.
The U.S. Government assisted Thai prosecutors in strengthening their cases after suspects claimed the seized shawls were not made from shahtoosh. Forensic experts from the US Fish and Wildlife Service were flown into Bangkok in December 2006 to conduct tests on the shawls, proving they were indeed made from the endangered Tibetan antelope.
Officers from the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), UK Government, Interpol, and Swiss Customs also shared information on the shahtoosh trade with the Thai police to support their case against the shahtoosh traffickers. John Sellar, Senior Enforcement Officer of CITES, said, "Having spent time with anti-poaching patrols on the Tibetan Plateau, I know that they cannot protect these rare animals on their own. They need the support of law enforcement colleagues around the world to act against those who sell the products of this evil trade. The wildlife, Police and prosecution authorities in Thailand have demonstrated very effectively the type of response that is needed. CITES has been delighted to assist with this case and congratulates the Thai authorities on the outcome."
"We feel that this is a big step forward in Thailand's efforts to deal with international illegal wildlife trafficking," said Maj. Gen. Boonmee Somsuk, Commander of the Thai Nature Crimes Police. "The court's decision confirms that it is illegal to trade protected species in Thailand, even if they are imported from another country. Those who traffic illegal wildlife here will be punished."
"This case is a breakthrough for ASEAN-WEN. It demonstrates that when law enforcement officers and conservationists work together across agency and national boundaries, the illegal wildlife traffickers have less chance of getting away with these heinous crimes" said Steven Galster, Director of Field Operations for Wildlife Alliance in Thailand.
Galster, added, however, that "the case also sends a signal to Thai lawmakers that their wildlife legislation needs even further strengthening", noting that the maximum fine for wildlife traffickers in Thailand is just 1,200 USD.
Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, said "We hope this will send a clear message to other such retailers that imported animal products will not be exempt from scrutiny under Thai law, even in the high-end parts of Bangkok".
Endangered Tibetan Antelopes (also known as the Chiru) are hunted and killed by poachers to make shahtoosh shawls, which are sold on the black market for between $US1,200-$12,000 apiece. There may be as few as 50,000 Tibetan Antelopes left in the wild, a sharp drop from the one million that roamed the Tibetan Plateau early last century. The antelope has been listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1979, prohibiting all trade in shahtoosh. IUCN - The World Conservation Union-- classifies the Tibetan Antelope as Endangered due to illegal hunting on its Red List.
The ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) is an inter-governmental initiative which has brought 10 Southeast Asia governments together to combat wildlife crime. ASEAN-WEN is designed to protect Asia's wildlife from illegal and unsustainable exploitation by facilitating the exchange of vital intelligence among police, customs, and environmental agencies about wildlife criminals operating within the ASEAN region. Thailand is a founding signatory of the ASEAN-WEN initiative.
For more information and photos, contact:
PeunPa Foundation Thailand (a member of Wildlife Alliance)
Tel +6681 9399433
Email : Tassanee@peunpa.org
TRAFFIC Southeast Asia
TRAFFIC Southeast Asia
Notes for editors:
In the past, hunters only killed male antelopes. Modern, organized gangs of poachers have been known to kill whole herds of Tibetan Antelope, including pregnant does.
The trade route for shahtoosh starts in the Tibetan Plateau. The wool is smuggled from China into Kashmir, where shahtoosh weaving has a long history. The finished shawls are then sold illicitly in some major cities in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
The black market for shahtoosh highlights the difficulties in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. Despite conservation campaigns, strict laws and high-profile criminal cases, demand for the super-fine wool, and thus, poaching persists. Two years ago, Swiss officials confiscated 537 shahtoosh shawls, representing the death of between 1,600 and 2,700 Tibetan Antelopes.
ASEAN-WEN is the world's largest wildlife law enforcement network, comprising enforcement officers from Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The United States and China are also cooperating with ASEAN-WEN.
ASEAN-WEN operates on two levels: national and regional. On the national level, each country is setting up an inter-agency task force comprised of police, customs, and environmental officers. Once this step has been completed, task forces form the backbone of a regional network dedicated to battling trans-national wildlife crimes. Focal points from each agency can share intelligence with each other across the region.
Wildlife Alliance (through its local Thai partner PeunPa) is continuing to work with TRAFFIC via a cooperative partnership with USAID, to provide technical assistance to government agencies that are implementing ASEAN-WEN.