Inside Look: Police Bust Tortoise Trafficker

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After a two-year investigation, last week Thai police raided the premises of a key player in an international tortoise smuggling ring

 

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Eight undercover officers scope out an upmarket apartment block on the outskirts of Bangkok. It’s early morning, Thursday March 3, and after tailing their suspect for 300 kilometers the day before, police are certain he’s inside.

As they await an official search warrant, they patrol the property – ready to make the arrest should the suspect, Worapon Chumpathong, venture outside.

The investigation dates back to November 2014, when eight suitcases containing over 650 CITES Appendix I-listed Hamilton Terrapins were intercepted at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, coming from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Three contractors claimed that Worapon had paid them to deliver the consignment of tortoises straight to him. Worapon was interrogated in regards to these allegations and due to insufficient evidence was later released.

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Photo Credit: Royal Thai Customs

Two years passed, with thousands upon thousands of dead, or barely alive tortoises passing through Suvarnabhumi Airport – some seized, some undetected; all fated for the soup bowl, medicine markets, or life entrapped as an exotic pet in places like Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Over the years and numerous seizures, officers collected information on the suspect. Freeland supported these investigations with manpower and research resources – valuable commodities often not liberally afforded to wildlife crime cases. Finally, when a courier in Worapon’s network was stopped by Thai Customs at Suvarnabhumi Airport on February 29 this year, again with 300 CITES-listed species – 150 Indian Star Tortoises and 150 Hamiltons Terrapins – police believed they had enough evidence to build a strong case against Worapon.

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At about noon on March 3, the search warrant is secured. The police head up to the seventh floor apartment, with support officers in full gear. No caution is spared, as police listen to the door, confirming people inside. After knocking and announcing their presence several times with no response, they open the door – to find the lights off and the indoor safety catch on.

The standoff continues this way for some time, until eventually, a face appears at the door. At first protesting, then eventually conceding, Worapon lets three officers and key investigators in – who search the premises and make the arrest.

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Worapon is then led down to the parking lot where his vehicle is searched, and he is taken away for further interrogation. He cuts a sorry figure in the back of the vehicle, head hanging low – defeated.

After two years, countless investigation hours and thousands of tortoises illegally trafficked and traded, a key figure of this syndicate is facing court, and probably jail time. This will impair the ring’s operations, and allow time for the police to work on the other serial killers involved in this, and other, international trafficking rings.

“It’s truly encouraging to see Thai law enforcement catch an individual with a pivotal role in the South Asian and Southeast Asian turtle and tortoise trade,” says a representative from Freeland’s Investigation’s Team. “We commend their efforts and capacity, and we look forward to supporting them in current and future cases like this one.”

Want to learn more? Check out our press release

Photo Credit: Thai Customs

Photo Credit: Royal Thai Customs

 

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