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  PlanetArk 26 May 06
Southeast Asia Plans Wildlife Crime-Busting Units

BANGKOK - Special wildlife crime-busting units will form the core of Southeast Asia's first coordinated effort against the multi-billion-dollar illegal trade in animals and plants, officials said on Thursday.

Plans for the task forces were agreed during a two-day meeting in Bangkok of police, customs and wildlife officials from the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"They will go after the big guys," Steve Galster, director of WildAid Thailand, which will help train the units, told Reuters.

The task forces are part of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, launched in December, which aims to target traffickers and criminal syndicates in a region that accounts for a quarter of the global illegal wildlife trade.

Thailand, a major transit point for everything from rhino horns and tiger skins to rare snakes, and the Philippines have already set up task forces on paper, Galster said. "The next step is to train them up and activate them this year. Indonesia wants to be next," he said, but it could take a few years for other countries to follow. "We're hoping that this will snowball. We want to go to the other countries and ask them what they need," he said.

Asia is an international hotspot for the illegal trade in endangered plants and animals, now the third largest form of black-market trade in the world next to drugs and arms.

China is a major market where demand from restaurants, medicine shops and private collectors has surged along with the nation's wealth. China attended the Bangkok meeting as an observer and pledged to cooperate with the ASEAN network, Thai officials said.

Southeast Asia is rich in valuable plants and animals, and traffickers using complex routes through Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand can earn huge profits.

Tiger skins fetch US$15,000, while ramin, a rare timber used for snooker cues, can command up to US$1,200 per cubic metre.

Some traffickers are linked to organised crime. Others use the Internet to sell their goods. Few are caught and, if they are arrested, jail terms are rare.

"The profits are large and the risk of detection is low. In most courts around the world you are going to get off pretty lightly," said John Sellar, senior enforcement officer for the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Sellar, whose organisation regulates trade in 30,000 endangered species of plants and animals, said it would take time for the ASEAN network to become a "true wildlife Interpol".

"When Interpol was created, it didn't start solving crimes the next week. The law enforcement process takes a long time," he said. Story by Darren Schuettler

Related articles on Singapore: wildlife trade
ASEAN Wildlife Trade Initiative on the TRAFFIC website
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