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22 Dec 06
Thai students enlisted to combat illegal wildlife trade
BANGKOK (AFP) - Every weekend, Bangkok's sprawling Chatuchak market is filled with young Thais buying the latest styles and sunburned tourists looking for souvenirs.
But shopping is not the priority for one group of local college students roaming among the stalls in Chatuchak, or JJ, market. Instead, they are looking for animals being traded illegally.
The 30 students are known as "JJ spies" -- additional eyes and ears to help combat the illegal wildlife trade in and around Bangkok's biggest market under a program launched by US-based animal rights group WildAid.
"They are aware of the issues and they want to make a difference," says William Schaedla, the deputy chief of party at WildAid, in Bangkok.
Kosess Somkid, a student at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, says as a member of his school's environmental club he has jumped on the opportunity to take part in the JJ spy training class. "I did not hesitate to apply because I wanted to be a part of helping to keep the wildlife in the wild as much as possible," he says.
While most of the wildlife for sale at Chatuchak market comprises pets -- fish, birds, cats and dogs -- there are also endangered animals like wild birds, rare reptiles and slow loris being sold and traded, WildAid says. The illegal wildlife trade spills out into a smaller neighboring market and side streets, with dealers setting up temporary stalls and selling animals out of the back of their cars, Schaedla says.
Kosess says he has learned how to identify protected wildlife species and animals that are illegally traded in Thailand. "We found so many shops selling protected bird species openly," he says. "I guess they are aware of acting against the law but they aren't afraid at all."
Under Thai wildlife laws, a smuggler could face up to four years in prison or a fine of about 40,000 baht (1,100 dollars). But the illegal wildlife trade remains rampant even though police often raid Chatuchak.
"People see it as quick cash with low risk," says Petch Manopawitr, the deputy director at the Wildlife Conservation Society Thailand.
The illegal wildlife trade is the third most profitable source of global criminal earnings after drug trafficking and the arms trade, according to animal rights groups. Thailand, with its highly developed infrastructure and location, has become a transportation center for the illicit animal trade in Southeast Asia, they say.
In November, a group of 48 orangutans smuggled from Indonesia to Thailand was returned home, two years after they were discovered in a Bangkok zoo. Animal products like the fur of Tibetan antelopes, tiger parts and scaly anteaters called pangolins are also being transported across Thai borders illegally bound for other countries, most often China, WildAid says.
So far this year, Thai authorities have confiscated wildlife being illegally transported 14 times, compared to only four seizures in 2005. The animals found this year include dozens of wild birds being illegally traded at Chatuchak market, WildAid says. Police also seized some 15 star tortoises and 185 chameleons at Thai airports.
To combat wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last year set up the Wildlife Law Enforcement Network aimed at boosting cross-border cooperation and information flows.
Meanwhile, animal rights groups say programs like the JJ spy represent good first steps to raise public awareness about the illegal animal trade, and to build an informal network of people committed to stopping it.
Kosess says he has already shared what he learned at the JJ spy training course with other students. "We all understand that everyone's cooperation, not only from related government agencies, but also from the public, will play the biggest part in solving this problem," Kosess says.
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