Two months ago, Noor Mahmood almost achieved the unthinkable: about to fly first-class to Dubai, the 36-year-old United Arab Emirates national calmly deposited his hand luggage on an x-ray scanner at Bangkok Airport. As the case trundled past security, not a single member of staff noticed the marmoset, gibbon, Asiatic black bear and four leopards "all drugged and less than two months old" packed tightly inside.
Just as he was about to board, Mahmood felt a hand on his shoulder.
Collared by Thai wildlife taskforce police, he bragged about having connections with a former Thai prime minister in the hope of being released. The officers refused to budge and a conviction seemed certain -- until the suspect was later released on bail and immediately fled the country.
The scenario is all too familiar to those who work to combat Southeast Asia's illegal trade in wildlife. Prosecutions are rare; prison sentences even more so.
Freeland Foundation Director Steven Galster, who works closely with police throughout the region, said at the time of the arrest: "Over the past six years, we've seen only one trafficker go to prison – and that was because the prosecutor knew what he was doing and happened to be an animal lover."
The illegal trade in endangered species is believed to be worth up to $30 billion a year, 25% of which passes through Southeast Asia. The volume is increasing, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature's regional office, but so are efforts to stop it.
Among those efforts is Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, a sprawling 2,500-acre "safe house" for exotic creatures rescued from the clutches of would-be smugglers.
The sanctuary, which is run by Wildlife Alliance within a protected forest, is home to a spectacular array of Cambodian fauna, including the world's largest captive collections of pileated gibbons and Malayan sun bears.
Other rarities include the delightfully named hairy-nosed otters, the slow loris and the knobbly kneed greater adjutant stork, a feathered oddity if ever there was one.
Here, more than 1,200 creatures representing 93 endangered or threatened species preen, posture and play in the safety of leafy enclosures, peered at by wave after wave of curious onlookers.
Prostrate next to a large inviting pool, a row of Siamese crocodiles with jaws slightly ajar soak up the sunshine like prehistoric solar panels. Believed extinct until the centre discovered several pure-blood specimens within its own perimeter, they have a special place in Khmer history and can be seen carved into the ancient walls of Angkor Wat.
A few enclosures on, a gasping crowd has gathered to watch an enormous python slowly uncoil itself.
Midway through lunch, my Cambodian companion nudges me when a burst of music erupts nearby.
"Elephant disco," he says, sagely. I laugh, assuming I've misheard.
Not so. One of the core values here is promoting conservation efforts by engaging visitors as much as possible.
More than 20,000 people come here every year to learn about wildlife. In addition to a Bear Discovery Centre, which details the horrors of the bile trade and traditional "delicacies" such as bear paw soup, visitors are given the chance to interact with some of the sanctuary's residents, including the elephant gently probing a water melon in the outstretched hand of the boy beside me.
When a snake-like trunk plucks it out of his hand and deposits it into a gaping grey mouth, he giggles. When it returns to remove a 1,000-riel note from his other hand and passes it to the keeper, the giggles turn to guffaws.
"Whether we're making a global impact or not, I don't know, but certainly we're touching Cambodia," says Wildlife Rescue Director Nick Marx, who oversees Phnom Tamao. "The people that know us, they know we're doing a good job. They can see what can be done with a little bit of money and a lot of hard work and passion. I have always loved wild animals and always will. What people are now doing for wildlife populations is catastrophic: reducing many, many species to extinction. This has to stop. If I can play my little part in helping to stop that, then I reckon my life's been worthwhile."