A suspected wildlife trafficking kingpin accused of smuggling $1 million worth of rhino horns to Thailand has had the case against him dismissed, in a surprise Thai court verdict slammed by conservationists.
Boonchai Bach, a Vietnamese national with Thai citizenship, was arrested in January 2018 in connection with the smuggling of 14 horns from Africa to Thailand.
His arrest came after police caught an airport quarantine official attempting to remove the horns from the quarantine section of a Bangkok airport.
The police sting led investigators to a major syndicate allegedly financed by Boonchai.
But the case was dismissed by a judge on Tuesday because of a lack of evidence, according to an official at Samut Prakan provincial court, where the trial took place.
The case against Boonchai unravelled after a key witness changed his testimony linking Boonchai to the crime, according to the founder of anti-trafficking group Freeland, Steve Galster.
"In the end the case was low-profile and treated like a parking ticket," Galster said, adding that the case "fell apart" when the prosecution's only major witness "flipped" on the stand.
Freeland representatives, including Galster, assisted with the investigation and testified at Tuesday's trial.
They allege there is "adequate incriminating information" to show the Bach family is part of the sprawling Southeast Asian crime syndicate dubbed "Hydra".
The syndicate smuggles elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts to Chinese and Vietnamese dealers.
For years, traffickers have operated out of Nakhon Phanom province in northeast Thailand, bordering Laos.
It is a pivot point in Asia's wildlife trafficking chain through which smuggled goods transit through Thailand into Laos and on to Vietnam and China.
Both countries are among the world's biggest markets for parts from endangered or protected species, including tigers, elephants, rhinos and pangolins.