From Chatuchak to Woodlands: Smuggled animals face long and perilous journeys

Mr Wasan Limsakul says two to three Singaporeans visit his shop every month to buy reptiles. Ball pythons are their favourite. He adds: "I sell to Singaporeans, and most of them know it's illegal in Singapore."
Mr Wasan Limsakul says two to three Singaporeans visit his shop every month to buy reptiles. Ball pythons are their favourite. He adds: "I sell to Singaporeans, and most of them know it's illegal in Singapore."PHOTO: MATTHEW MOHAN

Metal hoop in left earlobe. Biker slogan across the chest. Mr Wasan Limsakul does things differently - that's why his business interests include exotic serpents and iguanas.

The 49-year-old runs a shop on the fringes of Bangkok's Jatujak (known to tourists as Chatuchak) Weekend Market, where he sells his cold-blooded creatures.

An albino ball python slumbers around his neck.  Plastic containers are stacked behind the duo, each labelled with the name of the species and price of the inhabitant.

They hide a crowd-pleaser among Singaporeans: snakes.

"I sell to Singaporeans, and most of them know it's illegal in Singapore," Mr Wasan says in Thai. "They probably come in their own car, so they try to take just one or two home."

Jatujak Market is one of the largest sources of exotic pets for Singapore, says Traffic South-east Asia's regional director, Dr Chris Shepherd. Many of these animals, which originate from Thailand or Indonesia, go through Malaysia before crossing the Causeway.

To meet demand in the region, many of these exotic creatures have been poached to near-oblivion in their native countries.

"The pet trade in South-east Asia is really driving a lot of species into extinction," Dr Shepherd says over the phone from his office in Kuala Lumpur. "Everything from frogs from Madagascar to tigers from who knows where - you name it, you can get it in Bangkok."

Mr Wasan says two to three Singaporeans visit his shop every month to buy reptiles. Ball pythons are their favourite. They are easy to transport - put them in a fabric bag, he says, hide it in a suitcase among clothing, and drive across the Causeway, where "they usually check just a bag or two".

A local exotic pet dealer, who wanted to be known only as Ah Long, 32, says through one of his clients via e-mail that he has sold "countless" exotic animals to Singaporeans. Popular species include bearded dragons, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, snakes and iguanas.

Ah Long sources his animals from suppliers all over the Asia-Pacific, in particular Malaysia and Thailand. He turns to a "go-to" list of contacts who specialise in transporting them across the Johor Baru-Singapore border.

Their methods are a trade secret, he says. "Only a very select few know about them, and it gives me some advantage over others when it comes to bringing in animals that are difficult to smuggle."

But wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai, who has dealt with the local illegal exotic trade for more than two decades, notes that smugglers are not at all concerned about the welfare of their cargo.

"They stuff drugged parrots into PVC pipes - 80 or 90 per cent will die, but those that survive will make them more money. They are willing to lose a whole bunch of animals just to make money."

For Mr Subaraj, wildlife trafficking across land borders is just the tip of the iceberg. Smugglers can take only "small amounts" this way, so larger quantities are often transported by sea. Lorries are not really used as they are often checked for other contraband such as duty-unpaid liquor and cigarettes.

When contacted regarding wildlife-related border enforcement, an Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) spokesman referred me to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

While AVA did not immediately respond to requests for figures on illegal animals seized at the borders, I understand it trains ICA officers in how to detect illicit wildlife coming through Singapore shores.

 "If you get into these networks of traders working with networks in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, there's stuff moving around all the time," says Dr Shepherd. "Very often, captive breeding facilities are no more than laundering points for taking animals from the wild."

THE THAI CONNECTION

Back in Thailand, exotic animals are being groomed to take their first steps on the journey south.

In a gated community about 20km west of Bangkok, detached bungalows loom over a man-made lagoon - a far cry from the congested Thai capital. And in one of these grand homes lies a compound housing 3,000 furry inhabitants.

Here, Mr Adul Sangkarrat, 58, has bred sugar gliders for the past four years to sell as a side hobby, with the help of his wife and a worker.

The full-time attorney boasts about his farm's stature, saying celebrities buy exotic animals from him all the time. But he is more reserved when probed about Singapore customers. He insists he has none, and denies that they are able to get their hands on exotic pets.

"Aren't they illegal there?" he asks.

After a few more bristly replies, he escorts me to the breeding space. Rows of piled-up cages in a dimly lit area are separated by narrow paths. The surgical mask I'm wearing is of little use against the musky stench.

Armed with a 10cm-long hooked metal stick and a torchlight, Mr Adul lifts up the flap on the little wooden boxes where the creatures sleep, and prods them.

These small mammals are nocturnal, he explains. Here, they rest during the day in boxes attached to the bottom of a cage. Stirred from their slumber, the grey-and-black animals screech loudly.

While Mr Adul remains cagey about the route that his animals take after they leave his farm, Mr Pisit Pakawan, another breeder, is more willing to elaborate.

He breeds hedgehogs, iguanas, meerkats, turtles and sugar gliders in a 4,800 sq m compound outside a northern Bangkok suburb.

The iguana enclosure is the first thing I see at the sprawling farm. At least 50 adults are lounging inside a sandy enclosure with wooden platforms and water tubs.

Nearby, tidy rows of grimy white boxes occupy a large roofed space. Two hedgehogs curl up in each box next to a small water bowl.

Even though Mr Pisit, 43, sells about a thousand hedgehogs every month, he says that number is not enough to meet demand. According to him, hedgehogs are popular as they are inexpensive, costing around 300 baht (S$12) each if bought in bulk.

A third of his customers are Malaysian, he says; others hail from Japan and the Middle East.

He says it is easy for Malaysian merchants to bring exotic animals across the Thai-Malaysian border.

"From Thailand to Malaysia, you can put them in the car and drive across. The southern border is not very strict. You don't need to get any permits," he says.

He owns another farm in north-eastern Thailand and, along with his brother Peerasit, 32, sells the animals at a shop in Jatujak Market. They say three to five Singaporeans visit every month to ask about exotic animals.

When I ask other Jatujak pet shop owners if they sell such animals to Singaporeans - on the pretext of getting one myself - they even offer ways to sneak the creatures into the Republic. One horned lizard seller recommends putting the reptile in a box; another suggests placing a ball python in a small bag, then hiding it in my crotch to fool airport X-ray machines.

A sugar glider seller whips out a fanny pack with a small opening and shoves the animal inside. I ask him if it will suffocate; he shakes his head and says it will go to sleep.

Another seller says it is smarter to smuggle the small mammals by car rather than by plane. His Malaysian customers sell the animals back home at a higher price.

Bearded dragon breeder Jakrapat Khoovatanapaisal, 38, has one Malaysian customer who buys his reptiles to take into Singapore.

"He knew it was illegal, and he had a way to smuggle them from Malaysia to Singapore," he says.

NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOUR

Closer to home, a salesman at a Johor Baru exotic pet shop has more to say on that subject.

The store, just 15 minutes by car from Woodlands Checkpoint, sells mostly reptiles. Large iguanas like Mr Pisit's sun themselves in roomy cages on the pavement just outside. Two chattering baby marmosets cling to a cage by the entrance.

Ninety per cent of the shop's customers are Singaporean, says the young salesman. Posing as a buyer, I ask him about taking a bearded dragon back home. He suggests going by car so I can smuggle both the animal and the necessary accessories in just one trip. The shop could rent me a transporter, but that would cost more.

"How do I hide this in my car?" I ask, gesturing at a pastel ball python.

He replies that some of his customers put the animal in a container before transferring it into a tissue holder that has been filled with tissue paper.

SNEAKING ACROSS

I have also been corresponding with a Singapore seller going by the moniker Steve Erwin, who breeds his animals across the Causeway.

Erwin tells me he owns a farm with a Malaysian friend. Posing as a prospective buyer, I approach him via WhatsApp to purchase a $300 hedgehog after finding his advertisements online at ChaosAds and Adpost. He says he has already sold 20 hedgehog babies; he also deals in Indian star tortoises, snakes and tarantulas.

Erwin agrees that it is more difficult to smuggle animals across the Causeway nowadays; instead, he opts for the Tuas Second Link.

Other local dealers say bringing animals across the border poses few problems, if any. While Ah Long usually hires smugglers for that, small-time dealers like JS, a 26-year-old army regular, sometimes do it themselves.

"They are all from Malaysia. We usually come in by car, and store them in a compartment under the passenger seat," says JS. "I bring my kids along so that we are less likely to be checked."

As a precaution, he insists on hiring a middleman to handle deals with first-time buyers, just in case the transaction is a set-up.

Ah Long, too, weighs various factors - whether the authorities are tightening border security, whether animal welfare groups are ramping up joint raids with AVA. He then decides whether to contact first-time clients directly. If not, he gets long-time customers to act as messengers.

Once a purchase is confirmed, clients are required to pay half the sum upfront as a deposit. Collections are done at the void deck of Ah Long's flat, or in his neighbourhood.

Despite the risks, these dealers say they have no plans to stop. JS rakes in about $2,500 a month - a third to half of what full-time dealers earn, he surmises.

Ah Long, meanwhile, earns about $3,000 a month, and up to $10,000 if business is good. In fact, he has quit his full-time job to focus on his illegal business.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'From Chatuchak to Woodlands: Smuggled animals face long and perilous journeys'. Print Edition | Subscribe