Guardian

Exclusive: Boonchai Bach allegedly ran tusk and horn smuggling route from Africa

Oliver Holmes

Sat 20 Jan 2018 06.00 GMT

Police in Thailand have arrested one of the world’s most notorious wildlife traffickers, allegedly involved in the smuggling thousands of tonnes of elephant tusks and rhino horns from Africa to Asia, the Guardian has learned.

Boonchai Bach, who goes by multiple aliases including Bach Mai Limh, was arrested at his operational base in the north-eastern province of Nakhon Phanom, next to the Mekong River on Thursday.

Authorities are holding him in relation to the alleged trafficking of 14 rhino horns from Africa into Thailand in December.

Steven Galster, the founder of the Bangkok-based anti-trafficking organisation Freeland, said the arrest was historic. “It is like catching one of the Corleones,” he said, referring to the fictional mafia family.

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Named for the first time in a 2016 Guardian investigation, Boonchai Bach and his older brother Bach Van Limh were identified as likely key smugglers operating a criminal syndicate partly responsible for devastating the populations of endangered animals.

Freeland had been tracking the siblings since 2003, collecting evidence on their operations, which included moving tiger bones across borders and has been linked to several infamous traffickers.

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The ‘Bach Brothers’: Boonchai Bach (L) and Bach Van Limh.

The pair, known as the “Bach Brothers”, were regarded as untouchable despite their public exposure. Freeland has been working with Thai law enforcement agents to work around corrupt public officials guarding their network. The elder Bach brother is believed to be outside Thailand.

The arrest came after a routine inspection of cargo on board a flight from Ethiopia. An x-ray revealed rhino horns in bags, but Thai police allowed the suitcases through and followed them to a Thai government officer working in the airport. He was arrested, along with a relative of Boonchai Bach, who police captured shortly after.

Galster said the police officers at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport should “be congratulated for breaking open the country’s largest wildlife crime case ever”.

The brothers have allegedly run an international supply chain sending endangered wildlife to major dealers in Laos, Vietnam and China, where animal parts are used in traditional medicine despite a lack of evidence of their benefits.

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Elephant tusks from Africa seized at Bangkok airport in January. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images

Freeland believes the brothers are part of a more extensive trafficking network that it refers to as Hydra, due to its many heads.

“They have been directly responsible for financing the poaching and logistical movement of massive numbers of endangered species for many years,” Galster said.

“This arrest spells hope for wildlife. We hope Thailand, its neighbouring countries, and counterparts in Africa will build on this arrest and tear Hydra completely apart.”

The Bachs allegedly supply Vixay Keosavang, south-east Asia’s most prominent wildlife dealer, who is based out of reach in Laos. The US government put up a $1m reward to end his operations in 2013.

The Bachs are also allegedly linked to Chumlong Lemtongthai, a Thai national serving 40 years in a South African jail after pleading guilty to exporting rhino horn. It is the country’s longest illegal wildlife sentence to date. Lemtongthai sourced rhino horn for the syndicate by employing Asian sex workers to pose as hunters and take part in organised hunts on game farms.

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Animal trafficking is the fourth most lucrative black market industry after drugs, then people and arms smuggling. It is worth $23bn (£17.5bn) a year, but for the most part, international law enforcement has proven inadequate.