BANGKOK, Thailand — There are few trades that can match dog smuggling’s visceral ugliness.
Come nightfall on the Mekong, metal cages packed tight with squirming canines are loaded onto boats and floated across Thailand’s river border. The animals reek. They yowl. They starve and suffer all the way to their final destination: Hanoi slaughterhouses.
There is no glory in trafficking dogs for meat. In Thailand — a source country where dogs are collected for shipment to Vietnam butcheries — the trade is illegal and widely deplored.
And yet despite increasingly noisy calls for crackdowns against the smugglers, and a barrage of unflattering media coverage, the trade has proven resilient and highly adaptable.
“This business has progressed into a fundamental export,” said Roger Lohanan, chief executive of the Thai Animal Guardians Association, which has investigated the trade since the 1990s. “The trade is tax free ... everybody wants a piece of the cake. The people involved in this trade have progressed from local farmers to politicians.”
The fundamentals remain unchanged since the 1990s, when entrepreneurs first turned the glut of wild dogs in Thailand’s northeast rice country into a serious, money-making enterprise. Mainstream Thai mores shun dog eaters. But in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, dogs are a delicacy that can fetch up to triple the price of pork. Dogs are snared in Thailand and shipped (via Laos) to Vietnamese abattoirs for profit.
In 2009, the GlobalPost investigation “Dog Meat Mafia” pinpointed the syndicate’s base of operation, a Thai hamlet called “Tae Rae,” and followed traffickers to hidden ports where more than 1,000 dogs were smuggled across in a single night.
But after a rash of crackdowns starting in 2011, the operations have decentralized and gone further underground, according to Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation-Thailand.
Though precise figures are unknowable, his non-profit estimates that roughly 300,000 dogs are smuggled out of Thailand annually and generating a profit, for Thai syndicates, of between $1.9 million and $2.4 million.
“It’s spread like a cancer,” Wiek said. “The mafia behind this changed its policies ... They’re really getting organized and advanced with technology.”
The dog collection syndicates now span across the entirety of Thailand’s northeast and corral the animals into holding stations that are scattered and more difficult to locate. Many collection trucks, Wiek said, are now fitted with GPS units and phony license plates.
But Wiek has brought his own technology to the fight: an eight-propeller, commercially available “drone” that can hover over suspected dog syndicate safe houses and snap photos and video.
Any leads, he said, go to the Royal Thai Navy, which patrols the Mekong. Provincial police raids against dog smugglers are uncommon: a police chief in Nakhon Phanom province, a key trafficking hub, previously told GlobalPost chasing dog syndicates was a distraction from halting drugs and illegal immigration.
Thailand’s navy, however, has proven more aggressive in intercepting smugglers.
“The Navy is really happy with these drones,” Wiek said. “They can actually spy on people without a search warrant.”
But despite the occasional intercepted truck, authorities appear highly reluctant to infiltrate and break up dog trafficking syndicates. As the trade has generated more cash, it’s widely believed to have funneled more protection money towards police and politicians. This allegation is lodged by almost every Thailand-based animal protection agency along with at least one lawmaker, Phumpat Pachonsap.
This has compelled one non-profit group, the Soi Dog Foundation, to fight payoffs with payoffs. “We do pay gifts to the authorities ... call that [what] you like,” said John Dalley, who heads the foundation.
An offering to a police official, he said, helps ensure that intercepted dogs find their way to a shelter, not a syndicate holding pen. The foundation is currently building a series of shelters in Buriram, a province between Bangkok and Thailand’s far northeast, to house dogs that might otherwise waste away in packed government shelters.
The proliferation of dog traffickers has driven Dalley to other unconventional tactics. When the foundation seeks hired hands to catch and sterilize dogs, it turns to men who make a living as syndicate dog catchers. “It may sound weird,” Dalley said, “but they’re skilled at picking up dogs.”
In lieu of making a case for animal compassion, Dalley has shifted his organization’s messaging toward highlighting the trade’s tendency to spread diseases such as rabies and cholera. Both Vietnam and Thailand have vowed to end rabies by 2020.
“Even with dogs that have been dead a few days on the trucks, they’ve found a way to bury them in the soil, exhume them, barbecue them and then they look OK to eat,” Dalley said. “People don’t understand what they’re eating when they eat dog meat.”
The influence of dog syndicates has grown so far reaching, Lohanan said, that it can be felt in parliament.
Lohanan, a Thai citizen, was tapped last year to advise officials on a pending law that would have forbidden dog slaughter on animal cruelty grounds. As it stands, eating dog is legal in Thailand but dog traders flout laws against smuggling, tax evasion and transporting unvaccinated animals.
The draft law, however, was altered before parliamentary consideration.
“We were hoping to make the dog trade legally taboo in Thailand,” he said. “But the government didn’t approve it. They scraped out everything that prevents the dog trade.”