Animal Traffickers Have German Zoos On High Alert

One of these Humboldt penguin was found dead at the Mannheim zoo
One of these Humboldt penguin was found dead at the Mannheim zoo

Investigators in Mannheim, in southwestern Germany, have a real whodunnit on their hands, a brutal kidnapping-murder case — but with a twist. The victim is a five-kilogram Humboldt penguin whose lifeless and decapitated body was found last month in a local parking lot.

The gruesome discovery came five days after the animal, of South American origin, was snatched from its enclosure in the Mannheim city zoo. The bird was just 10 months old.

"The case of our missing penguin could not have taken a worse turn," zoo director Joachim Költzsch was quoted as saying by the media outlet Deutsche Welle. "All of us, especially the keepers who have taken care of the animal every day, are shaken. Shattered over its death, but also shaken that someone could have so little respect a living creature."

More troubling still is that the penguin theft isn't an isolated case. Five months ago, 13 lemurs were stolen from a zoo in Thüle, about 50 kilometers west of Bremen. The animal abductors were careful to first disable the facility's security cameras, raising suspicions that it may have been the work of an organized crime ring, the German broadcaster NDR reported.

A year before that, German zoos were hit by a cluster of animal abductions. In December 2015, thieves took two hyacinth macaws — worth tens of thousands of euros on the black market — from Krefeld Zoo, northwest of Düsseldorf. A month earlier, a large King Python disappeared from a zoo in Magdeburg, east of Berlin. And in August of that year, three pigmy marmosets, two green acouchis and two penguins were taken from the Dortmund Zoo, in northwestern Germany, in the space of a few weeks.

The zoo's normally unflappable director, Frank Brandstätter, admitted at the time to being "unnerved" by the abductions. "Because you don't know what will happen next," he told the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Brandstätter said 2015 was the "blackest" period of his then 15-year tenure as zoo director, and said he felt like he was trapped in a crime novel, not knowing when or where the culprits would strike next.

Brandstätter believes the thefts are part of an organized animal trafficking racket. "It is a very lucrative business," he said. "Pigmy marmosets are a protected species and they cannot be captured in the wild. Which is why enthusiasts are willing to pay a lot of money for them."

The same goes for penguins, as Brandstätter was told by a sales agent who sells animals to both zoos and private individuals. The animal sales agent said he could sell 100 penguins a day if he wanted so seeing as there's always a demand.

Animal trafficking and smuggling of animal products is the third largest source of income for organized crime after drugs and weapons trafficking, with an estimated annual turnover of $10 billion. And when it comes to the rare-animal market the old rule of "the rarer the animal, the more expensive it is' still very much applies. The 80s saw a thriving trade of birds of prey and rare parrots. Nowadays, one can find animal fanatics in Germany that have callitrichidae monkeys in a cage in their living room, poison dart frogs in their backyard green houses, and crocodiles in the cellar.

But experts assume that in most cases of stolen zoo animals the creatures are trafficked abroad immediately and sold to wealthy individuals for private collections. Insiders cite Russia, China and Arab countries as the top destinations for trafficked animals. Europe is mostly off limits given that animals reared and held in zoos are usually equipped with microchips.

"It's just like how you wouldn't take a stolen Monet to the next available auction house. Instead you'd make sure it is housed out of sight, in a cellar or attic," said Theo Pagel, the director of the Cologne Zoo.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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