BANGKOK (AFP) — Thousands of tourists and locals throng the congested aisles of Bangkok's popular Chatuchak market every weekend, hunting for everything from a new pair of shiny leather shoes to a puppy.
But among the racks of caged creatures is an illegal trade in endangered animals that wildlife police say they are powerless to stop as sellers take advantage of lax Thai laws and punishments.
The illicit international trade in rare species is worth an estimated six billion dollars per year, academics estimate, and wildlife campaigners say much of that money now changes hands in the Thai capital.
"It's difficult to arrest these smugglers," Lieutenant Colonel Thanayod Kengkasikij of Thailand's anti-wildlife trafficking taskforce told AFP.
His problem is practical and legal as keeping an eye on smugglers as they move about the market is tough enough, but once arrests are made getting the courts to punish them is even tougher.
"If the court handed down harsher verdicts to traffickers I think they would be more afraid of us," Thanayod said.
Months of police surveillance at Chatuchak, also known as JJ market, preceded a raid last March, organised with the help of wildlife charities TRAFFIC and PeunPa.
During the operation, 40 undercover Thai officers arrested two traffickers attempting to sell three Madagascan Ploughshare tortoises, so rare that conservationists say only 300 remain in the world.
In another section of the market a dealer was caught secretly selling slow lorises, endangered primates that live Southeast Asian forests.
"Dealers stated openly that many specimens were smuggled into and out of Thailand," said Chris Shepherd, a senior programme officer for TRAFFIC.
"They even offered potential buyers advice on how to smuggle reptiles through customs and onto aeroplanes."
The surveillance and raid cost campaigners thousands of dollars. Of the three men arrested, none went to prison -- two were not punished at all and one received a 20,000-baht fine, half the maximum financial penalty.
These sort of meagre penalties frustrate wildlife campaigners.
-- For law to work, attitudes need to change --
"The biggest wildlife traffickers in the world have decided to base themselves in Bangkok because they know that if they get caught the worst that can happen is about a 1,000 dollar fine," saud PeunPa's Steven Galster.
"Nobody's going to jail, not even the guys caught red-handed. Meanwhile the traffickers are laughing all the way to the bank, using Thailand as a base."
The international law governing these crimes is called CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- to which Thailand is a signatory.
But the CITES provisions have not yet been fully translated into Thai law, and gaping loopholes still exist that Galster said will not close until attitudes throughout Thai society are changed.
PeunPa and TRAFFIC spent three years training police to understand the damaging environmental effects of wildlife crime, and now need to persuade judges too.
"The police working on wildlife crime used to be called the forestry police, mainly focused on illegal logging and timber trafficking. We've been training them up to go after wildlife criminals," Galster said, adding: "They've gotten pretty good."
"But they are seriously discouraged by the current law. They're raring to go but they need the law behind them," he said.
Police say new training seminars for judges are making a difference.
"Judges and prosecuting lawyers have changed their attitude since we began campaigning -- they used to think that violators were just earning a living but now they understand they are causing environmental damage," said Thanayod.
But change is slow and the drafting of a new tougher law, which has been the subject of years of discussion, seems as distant a prospect as ever.
"The situation's getting better but it's like with anything in Thailand: unless it's drugs or murder they don't think the police are going to take it all that seriously," Galster said.
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