We’re sitting in an unremarkable restaurant on a dusty road in a small town on Thailand’s east coast.
It’s the lull between breakfast and lunch and business is slow. Some of the staff occupy themselves preparing vegetables another relaxes in front of the TV, watching soap operas.
A couple walks in there’s nothing fancy about them.
She’s in a pink t-shirt and jeans. He’s wearing a crisp linen shirt and chinos, a mobile phone clipped to the belt.
The two take their seats and order some drinks, flicking through the brochure for the new motorbike they’re planning to buy.
Two young men wander in, bags slung loosely across their chests.
Barely acknowledged, they take a table near the couple and order some noodles.
For the next 40 minutes a game of surveillance is played out as Thai police close in on a group of suspected traffickers a group their informant has told them is on the verge of a deal.
But this bust isn’t real.
It’s part of the Partnership Against Transnational Crime Through Regional Organised Law Enforcement (PATROL), a cross-border multi-agency training programme.
The project, organised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was designed to help law enforcement officials across Southeast Asia deal more effectively with transnational organised crime.
It’s supported not only by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) but CITES, the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, which meets in Bangkok this week.
Horns and tusks
The WWF estimates some 30,000 elephants were killed for their tusks last year – even though the ivory trade has been outlawed since 1989.
And the voracious demand for rhino horn from wealthy consumers in China and Vietnam is fuelling an illegal, and fatal, trade in rhinos – a record 668 of these iconic animals were killed last year in South Africa.
Increasingly, wildlife trafficking is being recognised as an organised crime – reflecting the sophistication of the criminals’ operations as well as their global reach.
The illegal trade is now thought to be worth some $26.5bn a year, but could well be much higher given the underground nature of the business. And unlike the global drug networks, the wildlife kingpins operate in a shadowy world of anonymity, all too often beneath the radar of even the police.
The UNODC expects to run at least ten PATROL sessions in the region this year. Drawing on experts from across the world, including Interpol, it aims to help national law enforcement officials from police, border, customs and immigration deepen their investigative skills.
In the classroom and in the field, they learn the importance of securing the crime scene, following up on leads, investigating evidence including mobile phones, and interviewing the suspects to get the information vital to a conviction, not only of those caught in the bust but the bigger criminals further up the chain.
On this occasion, the trainers are impressed with the surveillance – one officer wanders around unnoticed as a lottery card hawker while another pretends to be a salesman at a bike showroom next to the rendezvous point.
The speed with which the participants secure the crime scene is also encouraging their interest piqued by the sound of shouting a crowd of onlookers quickly appears beyond the rope straining to catch a glimpse of what they think is a real raid.
But the team loses points for moving before the contraband, including ivory and rhino horn, has been exchanged. It might seem like a small mistake, but it’s one that could cost them a conviction in court.
The bust over, the team returns to their training centre where they’ll go through the evidence and interview their suspects – being careful not to betray the informant who’s among them.
With illegal ivory and rhino horn now being uncovered increasingly at border crossings and airports across Southeast Asia, these men and women are on the frontline of the fight against the traffickers.
In the battle against criminals who aim to make a fortune by stripping the world of its most unique species, they need all the help they can get.
The world doesn’t have the luxury of time.