Nithya Raja and Zakia Sulthana Ebrahim were due to board a flight from Bangkok to Chennai, India on Monday when they were abruptly stopped at the airport’s security checkpoint. The women had handed over their luggage—two suitcases—for a routine X-ray inspection, and something, evidently, had piqued the attention of the authorities.
Moments later, wildlife officials were called to the scene at Suvarnabhumi Airport, where they opened the suitcases and discovered 109 live animals. Thirty-five turtles, 50 lizards, two white porcupines, two armadillos, and 20 snakes, all contained within the two pieces of luggage.
Raja, 38, and Ebrahim, 24, were arrested and accused of wildlife trafficking. They have reportedly been charged with violating wildlife, animal disease and import regulations.
The large seizure appears to signal a return to form for illegal wildlife traffickers. It also validates concerns flagged by global experts over the past year that the illicit industry would bounce back after border closures and other pandemic measures disrupted the trade.
Danielle Fallin, a program coordinator and research assistant with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that while COVID-19 restrictions had made the logistics of the trade more difficult, it also plunged 104 million people in Asia into extreme poverty and forced many of them into illicit industries.
As a result, she added, cases of illegal wildlife hunting and local trade amplified.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) similarly found evidence, through interviews with wildlife traders and traffickers in difficult-to-police parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China, that in some cases wildlife products were being stockpiled until prices and demand recovered. Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia regional representative for UNODC, suggested that such a recovery would happen once restrictions were lifted further—a prediction that was echoed by Fallin.
“Illegal wildlife trafficking is poised for a disastrous expansion as countries in Southeast Asia begin to reopen their borders again and attract international tourists,” she wrote in December. Since then, multiple countries throughout the region have resumed international travel.
Southeast Asia has long been a hotbed for illegal wildlife trafficking, with the number of wildlife products sold online in the region doubling since 2015.
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