Thailand's forest protection squad arrests mastermind of illegal logging gang

Thawatchai Raksasil and his aide confessed to being the main coordinators of an illegal logging gang targeting Phayung (endangered Siamese rosewood) trees. PHOTO: THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand's forest protection squad have nabbed two people believed to be the key coordinators of an illegal logging gang.

Officials from the Forest Protecting Operation Centre on Friday evening (Jan 19) arrested 33-year-old Thawatchai Raksasil and his aide in the north-eastern city of Khon Kaen.

The two later confessed to being the main coordinators of an illegal logging gang targeting Phayung (endangered Siamese rosewood) trees.

The gang is believed to be the largest Phayung logging ring in the country. Authorities say its operations could be transnational, with several known criminals involved.

"This criminal case is very critical as a number of (the) criminals have records related to similar Phayung logging cases," said Athapol Charoenshunsa, the forest protection centre's director. "Despite their criminal records, they did not show fear, but repeated their crimes," he said.

Last December, a taskforce from the centre teamed up with rangers from the Thap Lan national park in Nakhon Ratchasima province to track illegal-logging moves made by the gang's members at an environmental research station in the province.

The gang had cut down two ancient Phayung trees, sawed them into pieces and placed them beside the roadside to be transported.

The park's Central Network Anti-Poaching System (NCAPS) cameras were later able to capture the gang returning to the site to transport the logs. When officials showed up to make arrests, they were fired upon by gang members and their vehicles damaged by bullets.

Three people were arrested at the scene, and at least two vehicles were seized as a result.

The investigation was later expanded, involving the police and its Natural Resources and Crime Suppression Division as well as the military.

During the investigation, officials learned that the gang had made use of a resort at a popular tourist attraction in the province to plan its operations.

An additional 20 suspected gang members have arrest warrants issued against them, with Vietnamese individuals also identified, putting the total number of criminals known to be involved at 25.

Siamese rosewood has been extensively harvested from Thai forests in recent years. The strikingly beautiful wood is used for household furniture and decorations.

A surge in demand is partly driven by large-scale international consumption of the wood, including in China. In China, many people believe the wood brings good luck and prosperity.

In recent years, foreign nationals have been found to be involved in illegal logging activities, prompting officials to step up their suppression efforts with the help of technology such as the NCAPS camera system.

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