'Wildlife Interpol' launched to aid endangered species

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Officials from 10 south-east Asian countries gathered in Bangkok to launch a regional Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) to combat criminal syndicates that smuggle exotic wildlife across borders for immense profits.

The agency, heralded as a wildlife Interpol, will ensure sharing of information between countries where the black market trading of items such as bushmeat, fur, pet birds, animal skins and reptiles is proving difficult to control. The global illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth at least $10bn a year, slightly less than the trafficking of arms and narcotics.

Despite reports from police, customs officers and environmental authorities that criminal networking across frontiers is increasing, it has taken more than a year for regional authorities to work out how best to share intelligence on poachers and smugglers. The derisory fines for offenders, and the meagre salaries of forest police and border patrolmen that left them vulnerable to bribery, have been major stumbling blocks.

Bangkok is considered a hub for the clandestine trade in endangered species because Thailand, in a region famed for its rich bio-diversity, has porous borders and a labyrinth of sea routes and air connections linking it to lucrative international markets.

With representatives from the two biggest consuming countries - China and the United States - participants came from Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam--all members of Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations).

Conservation activists from WildAid and Traffic also attended. "When the buying stops, the killing can too," said Mook Wongchyakul, a spokesman for WildAid Bangkok.

The idea for the agency emerged in October last year, at a UN convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites). Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra , a former policeman, urged creation of a "sort of wildlife Interpol" to combat the plundering of the region's rainforests. The threat of avian flu spreading through contra-band cargoes of parrots and other wild birds added a sense of urgency.

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