Alleged wildlife smuggling kingpin jailed in Thailand

BANGKOK — A court in Thailand has sentenced a Thai man believed to be a kingpin in the illicit wildlife trade to 2 ½ years in prison for smuggling rhinoceros horns, an organization that works with police to combat trafficking said Friday.

The group Freeland said the court in Samut Prakarn province convicted Boonchai Bach this week in the shipment of 11 kilograms (24.2 pounds) of rhino horns from Africa worth $700,000. The rhino horns were seized in December when a Chinese smuggler was arrested at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport. A wildlife quarantine officer at the airport accused of assisting the smugglers was also arrested.

The group said a relative of Boonchai's was caught when he sought to pick up the shipment, implicating Boonchai as the financier and leading to his arrest in January.

Rhino horns are used as medicine in some Asian cultures and viewed as aphrodisiacs. Demand has escalated in recent years, with the "belief that ownership conveys social and financial status," Freeland said in a statement.

"The horn was destined for northeast Thailand where it would be smuggled across the Mekong River to Laos for onward shipment to buyers, either in Vietnam or China," Freeland said.

Boonchai, 41, was accused of running a large trafficking network on the Thai-Lao border that spread into Vietnam. According to Freeland, he and his family played a key role in a criminal syndicate that smuggled items including ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, tigers, lions and other rare and endangered species.

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