To fight wildlife crime, experts say ‘follow the money’

BANGKOK (AP) — In most cases, the conviction of a Thai man trafficking rhino horns through a bizarre scheme that involved hiring prostitutes to pose as trophy hunters would have marked the end of the story.

But investigators took an unusual, next step — deciding to “follow the money” that helped bankroll the South African operation. That led to a court order last year to seize Chumlong Lemtongthai’s Thai bank accounts and other assets, including a house worth $142,000, to shut him down.

It was one of an increasing number of cases illustrating how nations are shifting tactics in fighting a global wildlife trafficking market worth up to $23 billion, after decades of relying on headline-grabbing police raids that have had little overall effect in halting illicit trades.

The idea is “to pick the pocket of the wildlife traffickers and try to freeze them in their tracks,” said Steve Galster, founder of the anti-trafficking Freeland Foundation.

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The approach is quickly becoming mainstream.

The U.N. General Assembly this week urged the world’s nations to adopt laws that allow wildlife crimes to be investigated as potential money-laundering crimes. That allows law enforcement agents to use actions against traffickers such as seizing assets, monitoring of financial transactions and red-flagging suspicious accounts or individuals.

With crime gangs increasingly turning to wildlife smuggling as a lucrative trade, experts say customs agents and police need to begin adopting these tools commonly used to fight drug lords and other crime kingpins.

“We’ve gone beyond kicking down the door and looking for animals in the back room, to looking at who’s the kingpin, who’s the transportation coordinator, who ultimately is the vulnerable node in the syndicate without whom the syndicate wouldn’t work,” said Galster, whose group has teamed up with law enforcement agencies to bring down several trafficking rings in recent years.

A new report this week calls this effort “urgent,” given how quickly crime gangs are evolving.

Agencies fighting wildlife crime need to conduct financial investigations after every bust — to identify broader crime networks and uncover criminal proceeds that can be frozen or confiscated, says the report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Suspicious transactions and bank clients can be “red…

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