BANGKOK – Police have arrested a man suspected of being a key player in one of Thailand's largest tiger trafficking rings, police and a wildlife conservation group said Sunday.
Authorities had been searching for the 49-year-old Thai man since last year, when they issued a warrant for his arrest after seizing a Bengal tiger cub during a separate operation, police said in a statement.
Police believe the network is buying tigers and selling them to purchasers mainly in China via land routes in neighboring Laos and Vietnam, said Chanadda Thanikulap of the FREELAND Foundation, an anti-trafficking group based in Thailand.
The suspect was arrested Saturday in northeastern Thailand and is being held in Bangkok, police said.
The tiger captured last year — now about 1 1/2 years old and weighing 220 pounds (100 kilograms) — was put on display for reporters during a police news conference announcing the arrest.
Chanadda said the animal was being held by the national park service and appeared to have been habituated to human contact, leading authorities to believe it had been bred in captivity.
Wildlife experts say the number of tigers in Asia has plummeted over the years due mainly to habitat loss and poachers who sell their skins and body parts to booming medicinal and souvenir markets, mostly in China. Conservationists say the government needs to do more to eliminate trafficking networks.
Thailand is a hub for illegal wildlife trafficking. Last year, authorities at Bangkok's international airport found a tiger cub that had been drugged and hidden alongside a stuffed toy tiger in the suitcase of a Thai woman flying to Iran.
Earlier this month, undercover anti-trafficking officers at the airport apprehended a 36-year-old man from the United Arab Emirates who was bound for Dubai with suitcases filled with drugged baby leopards, panthers, a bear and monkeys.