Editor’s note: This story was originally published on February 8, 2019. It has been updated following the sentencing of Yang Feng Glan, a Chinese citizen known as the “ivory queen,” in Tanzania.
Major victories are scarce in the fight against international wildlife crime, but January 2018 marked one such triumph when Thai police arrested Bach “Boonchai” Mai, a notorious Vietnamese trafficker known to deal in ivory, rhino horn, tigers, pangolins, and more, according to a Guardian exposé and evidence gathered by the anti-trafficking group Freeland.
The widely praised news made international headlines—but celebrations were premature. Last week, Bach walked free after a key witness recanted his testimony in court. It’s an all too familiar outcome for those accused of leading illegal wildlife trade operations. They are rarely convicted, and even more rarely punished.
“There’s so many cases with so-called kingpins or senior, important figures that either drag on for years in the courts and then collapse or simply wind up not being prosecuted,” says Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network. “It’s enormously frustrating because it happens far too often.”
Bach was charged for his suspected role in the smuggling of 14 rhino horns to Thailand, in violation of an international treaty on wildlife trade and of Thailand’s Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act. If he’d been convicted, he could have faced up to four years in prison and a $1,300 fine.
Conservationists originally hoped that Bach’s arrest would kick off a multicountry investigation to unravel Hydra, the many-headed criminal syndicate Bach allegedly runs with his brother, Bach Van Lim. Hydra operates throughout Southeast Asia and has known ties to Africa and China, says Steven Galster, founder of Freeland, which is based in Bangkok.
“If you’re going from a scale of one to 10 for extremely important players in illegal wildlife trade, Boonchai is around an 8.5,” says Galster, who has been tracking the Hydra syndicate since 2003. “There’s probably only one or two others on his level in Southeast Asia.”
Bach had long managed to evade arrest, Galster says, but in December 2017, Thai authorities linked him to 14 rhino horns they discovered in a Chinese citizen’s luggage at Bangkok’s airport. Rather than confront and arrest the man outright, Thai customs and police chose to use a method called “controlled delivery.” They followed the man as he continued on his way with the horns, leading them to a government wildlife quarantine officer, who took the horns off the Chinese man and then met with a relative of Bach’s. Ultimately, this led to Bach himself as the alleged financier and importer of the horns.
“We shouldn’t forget that this case has shown some real progress in the way Thai authorities investigated wildlife trafficking,” says Giovanni Broussard, Southeast Asia regional coordinator of the United Nations Global Program for Combatting Wildlife and Forest Crime.
As media headlines faded, however, interest in the case waned, Galster says. The Thai government and Freeland have assembled years of evidence pointing to Bach’s guilt, but authorities chose to hand the case off to a junior prosecutor, who built his case around a single witness testimony rather than those collective resources. Thai authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, in a nearly empty courtroom just south of Bangkok, Bach’s lawyer argued that his client had fallen victim to a case of mistaken identity. When asked to identify Bach—who had altered his appearance by wearing a hairpiece and glasses, Galster says—the witness said he could not. “There was enough doubt cast that the judge felt she had nothing else to go on,” Galster says. “Boonchai Bach’s altered appearance was meant to ensure the witness had a reason to change his mind.”
Galster and others believe that the witness was likely threatened or paid off before the trial—a common occurrence, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C, that works to solve societal problems, including wildlife trafficking.
The outcome, she continues, “is emblematic of the weakness of prosecution in places like Thailand in general” but nevertheless was a disappointment. “The dismissal of this case is just awful,” she says. “The message it sends is that you can get away with wildlife crime.”
Bach joins the ranks of a number of high-profile alleged traffickers who have managed to evade consequences, including Feisal Mohamed Ali, a convicted Kenyan ivory boss who successfully appealed his guilty sentence last year; Dawie Groenewald, a South African safari operator who faces more than 1,800 wildlife-related counts but whose case has been dragging on since 2010; and Vixay Keosavang, a Bach associate who has been wanted by the U.S. State Department since 2013 for smuggling major shipments of ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, and more from Africa to Asia. Such individuals often have ample money to spend on their defense and operate in countries with high levels of corruption, limited resources for prosecution, and weak laws relating to wildlife crime.
'Ivory queen' sentenced
Yet counter examples do exist. Three weeks after Bach’s dismissal, a Tanzanian court sentenced Yang Feng Glan, a Chinese citizen known as the “ivory queen,” to 15 years in prison for leading an organized criminal cartel that trafficked hundreds of pieces of ivory worth $2.51 million.
“This is an incredibly significant victory, not only for Tanzania but elsewhere in Africa,” says Krissie Clark, executive director and co-founder of the PAMS Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Tanzania. “It really just shows that nobody is above the law and that big people can go down.”
Yang’s successful arrest and conviction hinged on an intelligence-led approach, Clark says. Unlike Bach’s case in Thailand, multiple Tanzanian agencies came together to build a strong prosecution. The case also reflected President John Magufuli’s pledge to crack down on poaching and corruption, Clark says.
From 2009 to 2014, Tanzania lost 60 percent of its elephants, primarily because of poaching. Following that devastation, “it is extremely encouraging to see the government taking such a hard stance on wildlife traffickers,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, a nonprofit group based in Kenya. The Yang case, he adds, is one of several recent high-level trafficking cases to have been taken seriously by the Tanzanian courts.
“Tanzania has been building toward this, slowly charging bigger and bigger fish,” Clark says. “Previously, and elsewhere, there’s been a lot of corruption, and it’s been very difficult to get these things done, but this conviction shows that we can get our act together and that Tanzania is leading the way.”
The Thai government, Galster points out, can still appeal the Bach verdict. Freeland is also looking into avenues for opening up a public-interest lawsuit against him. But until exuberant headlines translate into multicountry investigations and serious legal action, lack of prosecutions will likely remain the norm. As Galster says, “We need to treat these cases as what they really are: transnational organized crime.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.