BANGKOK, May 23, 2011 (AFP) - Thai police have arrested an alleged kingpin in what could be the country's largest tiger trafficking ring, a wildlife protection group said Sunday.
Sudjai Chanthawong, a Thai national, was detained on Saturday in the northeastern town of Udon Thani by undercover officers of the nature crime division, according to the Freeland Foundation, which supported the operation.
The gang he is accused of protecting and financing was thought last year "to be responsible for moving up to 1,000 tigers and leopards across the border into Laos and Vietnam in the past decade," Freeland said in a statement.
Sudjai was arrested after police confirmed his bank account was used by the ring to accept payment from undercover officers for the sale of a live tiger last year -- a deal that led to the arrest last May of two other Thai men.
"Thai police are to be congratulated for following the money and finding one of the kingpins involved in cross border wildlife trafficking," said Freeland director Steve Galster.
Sudjai was brought to Bangkok for further questioning on Sunday, while the live tiger that he helped to sell last year, now known as Sylvia, was brought to a police news conference in the capital.
Sylvia, sold in the sting operation as a cub, now weighs almost 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and is kept in a special national park facility caring for seized wildlife in western Ratchaburi province, Freeland told AFP.
Thailand is one of just 13 countries hosting fragile tiger populations, which are on course for outright extinction by 2022, the conservation group WWF warned last year during the Year of the Tiger.
The group said decades of trafficking and habitat destruction had slashed tiger numbers from 100,000 a century ago to just 3,200 today, with the Chinese the world's biggest consumers of tiger products despite global bans.
Thailand is home to some of the world's largest wildlife trafficking operations and Freeland is campaigning for the government to pass stronger laws against them.
Earlier this month, the Thai nature crime police arrested a man whose luggage contained a baby bear, a pair of panthers, two leopards and some monkeys -- all alive -- that he was trying to smuggle out of the country.
The United Arab Emirates national was detained at Bangkok's main airport, attempting to fly first-class to Dubai with the young creatures in his cases.