An Ecuadorian court has sentenced a German tourist to four years in prison for trying to smuggle threatened iguanas out of the Galapagos Islands. Dirk Bender was arrested on July 8 after officials from Galapagos National Park noticed that he was carrying a “suspicious package” which was revealed to be four lizards wrapped in canvas.
It was certainly fortunate that Bender was caught before he’d gotten very far from the lizards’ home. Too often, rare animals are transported to foreign countries by smugglers with little care for their welfare (but plenty for their profits). But what happens when animals like tiger cubs or rare monkeys are discovered, drugged in someone’s luggage?
Seeking to change its image as a central point for the illegal wildlife trade, Thailand has been cracking down on the international black market in rare wildlife, of turtles from Madagascar and sun bears from Asia who are to be sold as exotic pets or for food. But these stepped-up efforts have left Thailand with what the New York Times calls a veritable “Noah’s Ark-size burden” of wildlife to care for.
In just the past two years, Thai officials have seized more than 46,000 animals from smugglers, vendors and poachers, far, far more than the 18,000 they had in the previous two years. The accused face prison sentences but the animals are not speedily, if ever, returned to their often faraway homes. Many are kept as the evidence for the crimes of those who have sought to sell them. If no one is caught and accused, the animals must remain at the center for five years.
But Thailand has found itself overwhelmed with the care of so many animals, many from rare species who have most likely been traumatized by their capture and confinement. At the Khao Pratubchang Wildlife Breeding Center in Ratchaburi Province, 16 malnourished tiger cubs seized from a truck in October have exhausted keepers. The cubs require 24-hour care, says Sathit Pinkul, the head of the center: “It’s like having a child — there are so many details. You always have to be around when they are hungry.” Reared in captivity, it is unlikely that the tiger cubs can be returned to the wild. “Thanks” to the greed of some, they could well spend their life of about 20 years at the wildlife center, in cages.
45 other tigers, 10 leopards and 13 other small felines — fishing cats and Asian golden cats — also have found themselves unwilling residents of the center. Other such wildlife centers in Thailand are operating at or near capacity:
A center near Bangkok houses more than 400 screaming monkeys. One in Chonburi Province has 99 bears, one who has been named Airport because she was rescued from a smuggler’s suitcase at an airport. (Others have been named more randomly: Lonely, Fat, New Year.)
Caring and feeding all these animals (Pinkul’s center needs a ton of chicken every week) costs the Thai government about $57,000 (1.7 million baht) a month. Its Department of National Parks is seeking to cover the costs by getting donations from celebrities and other wealthy individuals, and by setting up a special fund.
The illegal capture and sale of animals shows no sign of lessening. As a recent Guardian article reports, poverty and economic hardship are the driving factors in Yemenis breeding African lions for sale in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The fate of the 16 cubs at the Khao Pratubchang Wildlife Breeding Center and of orangutans and rare deer and all sorts of macaques at other facilities in Thailand remains very unclear. It is certainly a reason to push not only for stiff penalties against the crime of poaching and smuggling endangered animals illegally, but also for keeping the overall welfare of captured animals in mind. Once rare animals are taken from the cages of vendors or from smugglers at an airport, it is only a partial success if the spend the rest of the days in limbo, in a cage.
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