Wildlife Justice Commission applauds Thai authorities for significant seizure in combatting the live pet trade 

In a significant blow to the illegal live pet trade, Thai law enforcement agencies, acting on intelligence provided by the Wildlife Justice Commission, have executed a significant operation on 1 May 2024. The operation resulted in the arrest of six suspects and the seizure of 1,076 radiated tortoises and 48 lemurs, concealed within 41 boxes and 11 cages respectively, while being transported in a four-vehicle convoy in Chumphon Province, Southern Thailand. Additionally, a further 179 radiated tortoises, 30 primates, and three juvenile crocodiles were seized following the search of a farm connected to the suspects. 

Valued at over USD 2 million on the black market, this seizure underscores the severity of the impact of wildlife trafficking on endangered species. Radiated tortoises and all lemur species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I, meaning that trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Both species are native to Madagascar and are highly sought-after commodities in the global illegal pet trade market. 

These recent arrests are part of an ongoing joint investigation conducted by Thai law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Department of National Parks (DNP), Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division (NED) of the Royal Thai Police, Royal Thai Customs, and Attorney General’s Office (AGO), alongside international partners such as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in collaboration with the Wildlife Justice Commission.

The investigation is focused on dismantling a transnational organised wildlife trafficking network operating in Thailand, with linkages stretching across Africa, Asia, and South America. This network specialises in the illegal trade of testudines, reptiles, and small mammals for the international illegal live pet trade. The arrests, coupled with the financial loss resulting from the seizure, are expected to have a profoundly disruptive impact on the ability of the network to continue its trafficking activities. 

The Wildlife Justice Commission is supporting the investigation by providing critical intelligence to the task force, shedding light on the nefarious activities of the network. Evidence and intelligence resulting from the operation is expected to assist the Wildlife Justice Commission in building a more comprehensive intelligence picture of international supply networks involved in the live pet trade. 

Olivia Swaak-Goldman, Executive Director of the Wildlife Justice Commission, lauded this joint effort, stating, “The Wildlife Justice Commission extends its heartfelt congratulations to Thai and international law enforcement authorities on this monumental achievement. We commend the unwavering dedication and collaborative spirit demonstrated by all involved in dismantling this illegal pet trade network. This operation represents the largest reported seizure of radiated tortoises in Thailand and the largest globally since 2018. This resounding success sends a clear message that wildlife trafficking will not be tolerated, and perpetrators will be brought to justice.” 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has indicated that 33 lemur species are Critically Endangered, with over 98% of lemurs facing extinction in the next 20 years, mainly due to deforestation and hunting. Similarly, the population of radiated tortoises has undergone a catastrophic decline and is now ranked Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, with an estimated population reduction of 80% over the past two decades. 

The live pet trade is a growing multi-million-dollar industry fuelled by increasing demand for rare species.  Since 2016, the Wildlife Justice Commission has been at the forefront of the fight against this illegal trade. Working in cooperation with law enforcement authorities, the Wildlife Justice Commission has disrupted trafficking networks in Asia and the Middle East and now, with this latest case, has helped rescue over 10,000 live animals including turtles and tortoises, big cats, orangutans and chimps.