Untouchable Wildlife Kingpin Arrested in Thailand
Acting on fresh evidence, Thai Police yesterday tracked down and arrested wildlife trafficking kingpin Boonchin Bach in Nakorn Panom, Thailand. He is being held in connection to the illicit trafficking of 14 rhino horns from Africa into Thailand in early December 2017, and is suspected of supervising an extensive syndicate responsible for trafficking large quantities of poached elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, tigers, lions, and other rare and endangered species for more than a decade.
Bach Van Minh –aka “Boonchai Bach”, among other nicknames—is of Vietnamese origin, but also holds Thai citizenship. He is a leading member of the Bach family that has long run the international supply chain of illicit wildlife from Asia and Africa to major dealers in Laos, Vietnam, and China, including to the notorious Vixay Keosavang. Keosavang, based in Laos, named Southeast Asia’s biggest wildlife dealer in the New York Times in 2013. Three years later, the Bachs were featured as Keosavang’s main supplier and referred to as Asia’s “top wildlife crime family” in a Guardian newspaper series. Both cases relied heavily on research provided by the counter-trafficking organization Freeland, who considered the collective network of the Bachs, Keosavang and other business partners to be one syndicate, which they codenamed “Hydra” and have been following for nearly a decade.
“This arrest is a significant one for many reasons,” said Police Colonel Chutrakul Yodmadee. “The confiscated items are high in value. And we are able to arrest the whole network involved, starting from the courier, the facilitator, the exporter who plan to export goods through Thai-Laos border. We even got the moneyman (investor) behind the gang. That means we are able to arrest the whole network.”
The discovery of Hydra and law enforcement’s pursuit of its members have taken many complex stages and will go through more. Between 2010 and 2013, Freeland and law enforcement authorities identified Vixay Keosavang as SoutheastAsia’s most significant wildlife dealer, but his arrest proved evasive. With the blessing of the law enforcement community, Freeland helped expose Keosavang’s “Xaysavang Trading Company” in a March 4th, 2013 New York Times investigative feature story.
At that time, it was revealed that convicted Thai citizen Chumlong Lemthongtai had supplied Vixay Keosavang with large amounts of rhino horn from South Africa, using Thai commercial sex workers to sign fraudulent hunting and export documents. Lemthongtai had been arrested by South African authorities in 2012 after information was shared among theSouth African Revenue Service, Freeland, and Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations.
In 2014, Freeland and Thai investigators discovered that Keosavang’s supply chain was actually organized and run by theBach family. The Bach family had representatives in Africa, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Lemthongtai was among these representatives. He had been hired by the Bachs who were coordinating with Vixay Keosavang to order dozens of rhinos a time to be killed for their horns and to then transport them via Thailand to Laos for onward sale to Vietnam andChina.
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Between 2014-2016, Freeland and Thai’s authorities accelerated their analysis of Hydra, focusing on the heart of its logistics: the Bach family, helped with newly available analytical technology, IBM’s i-2 software, and Cellebrite’s digital forensics. The analysis helped pinpoint multiple individuals and subsidiaries in the Hydra. Bach Van Lim was an original leader and Boonchai, his younger brother, started sharing power in 2005.
In early December 2017, Thai Customs and followed a suitcase discovered to contain a large quantity of rhino horn to a Thai government office in Suvarnabhumi Airport and discovered and arrested an officer there, Nikorn Wongprajan. Nikorn had been known to Freeland and DSI as a member of Hydra, but he had proven elusive until this moment. Nikornadmitted to being hired to pass the horn from the airport to one Bach Van Hoa, a relative of Boonchai, at a nearby apartment, leading to the arrest of Nikorn, Bach Van Hoa and a third individual, a Chinese citizen.
Last week, Thai police requested a further briefing from Freeland on the detailed web of Hydra and the Bach family, and unlocked the fresh evidence that led Thai Police to issue an immediate arrest warrant for Boonchai who was captured less than 24 hours later in Nakorn Panom.
“The security officers of Suvarnabhumi Airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport Police Station, Thai Customs and Immigration Police at Nakhon Panom are to be congratulated for breaking open the country’s largest wildlife crime case, ever,” saidSteven Galster, Founder of Freeland who has been following Hydra since 2003. “This arrest spells hope for wildlife. We hope Thailand, its neighboring countries, and counterparts in Africa will build on this arrest and tear Hydra completely apart.”