A heavy mist hung over the Mekong River as the first arrest under Thailand’s new Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act took place at Cham Pong Pier, the entry point for the Cham Pong morning market. This market, located in Wiang Kaen district, Chiang Rai province, hosts vendors from both Thailand and Laos on Wednesday mornings.

The suspect: a Laotian citizen who had allegedly brought an illegally poached porcupine across the river to sell as bush-meat.

The maximum sentence under the new law: a harsh 10 years in prison, and a fine of up to a million baht (about US$33,000).

The new law had just gone into effect three days prior, and is designed to help Thailand comply more effectively with the regulations outlined under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It defines the protected species of animals and plants that, if traded or imported into the country, will bring about harsher penalties than in years past.

The dead porcupine, brought over from Laos in a plastic bag. Photo: Chien Vuong Quoc / WWF Greater Mekong

Cross-border trafficking of a single porcupine might appear insignificant, but dozens or hundreds of such incidents along the border every week can build up to a large volume, and the illegal hunting driven by this trade can empty whole forests. Such devastating defaunation can already be seen in many landscapes in the region.

It seems possible that this person from Bokeo province, Laos, had not been informed about the change in sentencing, nor had witnessed the previous, more lenient version of the law being strictly enforced in the past. In a space where the border is so porous, how can laws be effectively enforced while also educating citizens about new regulations that don’t apply on the other side of the river?

Creating a cross-border connection

This scene was witnessed as part of a collective market survey undertaken as part of a Laotian-Thai cross-border meeting, organized by WWF Greater Mekong, WWF Thailand and WWF Laos, on November 26-27 in Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai district. Held under the Fighting Wildlife Trafficking in the Golden Triangle project, the event was attended by law-enforcement officials representing five districts – Tonpheung and Huayxai in Bokeo, Laos, and Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong and Wieng Kaen in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Lao and Thai enforcement officials, conducting the market survey as part of a cooperative exercise. Photo: Mia Signs / WWF Greater Mekong

The arrest illustrates why it is important to collaborate across borders on illegal wildlife trafficking, not only because it is a transnational trade, but because it is critical for both sides to understand and educate people on national import laws, animals and plants covered under international law, and the differences in national laws surrounding protected plant and animal species.

Participants in the cross-border collaboration meeting in Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai province, Thailand. Photo: Mia Signs / WWF Greater Mekong

The participating law-enforcement officials – 20 Laotian and 17 Thai – had previously been involved with the WWF project through capacity building workshops where they were taught the skills needed to identify wildlife products and enforce wildlife laws, as well as being equipped with the soft skills needed to take this information back and teach it to colleagues in their respective departments. The participants were from district customs offices, local and national police, border police, the Mekong Marine Police, district offices of wildlife inspection, immigration authorities, provincial and national offices of forest inspection, and prosecutors.

This meeting, however, was the first in which representatives from these two provinces were coming together to report progress on combating illegal wildlife trade, identify sticking points, and look for ways to collaborate in the future to improve overall wildlife-protection law enforcement in the region.

Finding workable solutions

Participants sharing their experiences during the event held in Chiang Khong. Photo: Mia Signs / WWF Greater Mekong

The participants acknowledged the difficulty of policing such a fluid border and identified instances when criminals had broken a wildlife law – be it using illegal fishing techniques or illegally harvesting non-timber forest products – and escaped to the other side of the river, thereby evading arrest. They also acknowledged that the lack of understanding of the differences in the national laws was a significant hurdle. Increased collaboration and communication were identified as key, not just in terms of enforcing laws and keeping each other informed of new policies, but collectively to understand trends and share intelligence on how wildlife crime is unfolding and how it can be tackled.

The participants worked collectively to solidify a set of procedural guidelines, including an agreement jointly patrol jointly six geographical areas of interest along the river to fight wildlife trade. They also committed to publicizing laws as they come into effect so that people are not suddenly slapped with a severe prison sentence. And they agreed to exchange information on persons of interest and to provide important investigative information if needed by setting up a communication channel between the two sides.

A handshake between the Laotian and Thai representatives after signing the agreement. Photo: Mia Signs / WWF Greater Mekong

This agreement signed by the two sides is the first between Chiang Rai and Bokeo provinces related to illegal wildlife trade that specifies areas to be jointly patrolled along the border. As such, it is an important show of good faith and a step in the right direction to protect endangered wildlife and the declining natural heritage of the region for current and future generations.

The two sides also swapped contact information, creating an informal but powerful communication tool. Now they could message or call one another if anything came up, be it an escaped criminal or some clarification of a new policy.

“This meeting is the starting point for more collaboration in the future,” said Sombath Boun Maseeng, deputy head of the Provincial Office of Forest Inspection in Bokeo. “It will make it easier for law-enforcement departments in the two countries to issue letters or orders quickly and to deal with urgent situations as they arise. I believe that the signing of this agreement signals an increase in our cooperation and an improved management of illegal wildlife trade across the border.”