by Rachel Nuwer, National Geographic, February 15, 2023
Around this time four years ago, the mood among wildlife officials in Thailand was somber. The case against Bach “Boonchai” Mai, the alleged leader of a major international wildlife trafficking ring, on trial for his suspected role in smuggling 14 rhino horns, had fallen apart after a key witness recanted his testimony in court. Conservationists bemoaned the judge’s decision to dismiss Bach’s case as emblematic of an overall lack of justice for high-level wildlife criminals.
But prosecutors in Thailand’s Attorney General’s office continued to appeal the decision. In September 2022, their efforts finally paid off when the Thai Supreme Court sentenced Bach to five years in prison. “There was always this tinge of embarrassment that he went free,” says Steven Galster, the founder of Freeland, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking group that launched the investigation into Bach. “This was a hit-back from the Supreme Court saying, ‘No more.’”
“The court sent a strong message to wildlife traffickers with this decision,” adds Sylvia Shweder, the Southeast Asia legal advisor for Counter Wildlife Trafficking at the U.S. Department of Justice, based in Vientiane, Laos.
Bach didn’t show up for his sentencing and is now considered to be a fugitive, with a warrant out for his arrest. Several Thai agencies are investigating his whereabouts, but if Bach has left the country, their ability to pursue him is limited, says Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “He remains well connected and networked, including with other targets in the Mekong region and Laos,” Douglas says. “We are hopeful pressure will build to go after Boonchai and act on the warrant.”
Thailand’s Court of Justice and Office of the Attorney General did not respond to requests for interviews.
Although Bach was convicted on the original charges of trying to smuggle 14 rhino horns into Thailand, according to Galster, the network he runs (named Hydra by Freeland and other conservationists) has played a major role for years in trafficking ivory, rhino horns, pangolin scales, tiger and lion parts, rosewood, and more in at least seven African countries and throughout Southeast Asia. On some weeks, Hydra moved products estimated to be worth $2 million, Galster says.
Galster and his colleagues became aware of Bach while looking into another alleged major wildlife trafficker, Vixay Keosavang, a Lao national. Keosavang made headlines in 2014 when the U.S. State Department issued a $1 million reward for information leading to the dismantling of his syndicate, the Xaysavang Network.
Keosavang has never been arrested, but after the State Department announcement, other members of his gang took over leadership, according to Galster. In 2014, Galster’s team came across five people who seemed to be trafficking wildlife contraband across the border from northeastern Thailand into Laos. Soon, Galster says, they realized that the names of the five were aliases for one individual: Bach.
In 2016, Thai authorities came close to arresting Bach, but at the last minute, he and other key members of Hydra disappeared, according to Galster. “There was a leak.” The next big break didn’t come until December 2017, when customs agents and police at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport found 14 rhino horns in a Chinese citizen’s luggage, and Freeland helped them link the horns to Bach by extracting data from the suspect’s phone. Police and customs then used a method called “controlled delivery,” in which they allowed the suspect to continue on his way with the contraband and followed him, leading them to Bach.
After the rhino horn case was dismissed in early 2019, the public prosecutors appealed the decision, to no avail. So they brought the case to the Thai Supreme Court, whose judges saw it differently: The behavior of the key witness who recanted his testimony, they said, made it clear that he “knows the defendant well.” Moreover, the witness’s decision to recant testimony indicated that he “clearly intended to help exculpate the defendant, thus making it unreliable.”
‘There is a god’
When the Supreme Court handed down its verdict, on September 22, Thailand was ending its fiscal year, and the news of Bach’s sentencing somehow escaped notice of both the media and of Freeland. Galster didn’t learn about it until more than four months later, on January 30. He says he could hardly believe it. “My first thought was, ‘There is a god!’”
Prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney General are now litigating an additional civil case against Bach, for money laundering. Working with Freeland, authorities in the Thai Anti-Money Laundering Office have seized Bach’s vehicles and some $11 million in assets and have frozen his bank account.
“It’s important that high-level wildlife traffickers are punished and their assets seized, so they are prevented from committing further crimes,” Sylvia Shweder says. “This is how we can dismantle wildlife trafficking criminal organizations.”
There are signs that Bach’s case isn’t a one-off, Galster says. In June, U.S. and Thai authorities in Bangkok arrested Teo Boon Ching, a Malaysian who allegedly was one of Hydra’s major suppliers, in connection to a seizure of nearly 300 pounds of ivory. Moazu Kromah, a Liberian national and alleged Hydra supplier, was extradited to the U.S. from Uganda in 2019 on charges of conspiracy to sell rhino horn and ivory and of money laundering. In August, a federal court in Manhattan sentenced Kromah to five years in prison.
More Hydra arrests may follow. In August, Freeland, with the support of the Department of Justice, organized a meeting with police, prosecutors, and government financial crime analysts from Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia to examine data from Bach’s seized assets and assess whether a larger, multicountry case can be made.
In the meantime, if Bach remains a fugitive, Galster says Thai authorities will alert Vietnamese, Lao, and Malaysian officials to be on the lookout for him, and a multicountry manhunt will begin. There’s also a small chance that Bach will turn himself in. Bach answers to bosses who “might throw him to the wolves and say, ‘Do your time so we don’t have to lose our assets like you did yours,’” Galster says. “He might just show up.”
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