It is one of our closest cousins, yet we're hardly treating it like family. Fully stretched, an orang-utan's arms can span more than two metres. Male orang-utans develop large cheek pads that female orang-utans apparently find irresistible, as do hunters. The shaggy, orange orang-utans, the only great apes to live outside of Africa, are agile but slow, and easy prey for poachers, who kill them for their body parts - the skulls are particularly valuable - or sell them as trophy pets to rich Asians for tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, the population of orang-utans per square kilometre in Taipei is now greater than it is in their natural habitat, the forests of Sumatra and Borneo. The orang-utan population of the nondescript Bangkok suburb of Minburi is similarly dense. It's home to Safari World, a 80-hectare zoo at the centre of the world's biggest scandal involving the endangered apes. A raid on the zoo by Thai authorities last November found 115 orang-utans, most of which police suspect were snatched from the wild and smuggled into the country. In theory, the apes should have been immediately removed to a safe place pending an investigation into their origins. But not only have they stayed put, the Thai authorities have so far proved peculiarly reluctant even to investigate the Safari World case, let alone press charges. Last Monday, 10 months after the initial raid, a police-supervised veterinarian began taking blood and hair samples from the orang-utans, which will then be DNA-tested to prove the apes' origins. The results will take three to four weeks. For conservationists and animal-rights activists, the Safari World scandal is further evidence of Thailand's pivotal role in the trafficking of our planet's rarest animals - a global trade worth US$6 billion a year. 'After drugs and arms, the illegal wildlife trade is the next most profitable form of black market business in the world,' said Steve Galster of the US-based group WildAid. 'But most governments still treat it as low-priority crime.' Aided by good road and air links and terrible law enforcement, Thailand not only smuggles in orang-utans from Indonesia, but also rhino horns and tigers from India, leopards and turtles from Burma, macaques from Cambodia, and vast quantities of African ivory. Animals are taken alive, often by killing the parents, then spirited into Thailand in abject conditions. The animals are then either sold on to zoos or private owners, dismembered for traditional Chinese medicine, or butchered for so-called 'exotic' restaurants in China, South Korea and Japan. While the profits from wildlife trafficking are huge, the risks are small and the penalties piffling. Traders can be jailed for up to four years under Thai law, but despite a get-tough campaign by a newly appointed police chief, not one trader has served time behind bars. Most of those convicted happily pay a paltry fine - the maximum is US$1,000, or the equivalent of about 7kg of tiger parts sold on the black market - and go straight back into business. Safari World - which calls itself 'The World of Happiness' - is apparently unaffected by a long-running scandal. The apes are still there because government officials claim to have no facility in which to re-house them. Orang-utans' behavioural and anatomical similarities to humans are honoured by their very name, which means 'man of the forest' and for more than a decade, Safari World has celebrated this relationship in its own unique fashion. 'Who could miss the world's first and only orang-utan boxing show,' said its website, 'starring the funniest and hairiest champions of the Olympics?' This show was only 'temporarily' closed in July, seemingly for the benefit of a team of Indonesian government officials and animal-rights activists who toured Safari World and demanded the repatriation of any illegally acquired apes. With a diplomatic row brewing, the scandal took on a bizarre turn: Safari World said 41 orang-utans had died of pneumonia and been cremated. Thai police searched the park to find most of the missing apes, and an assistant to Safari World's vet was later fined US$75 for lying to the police, a Thai newspaper said. The latest action against the park may have been precipitated by the arrival in Bangkok on Saturday of delegates from 166 countries for a two-week meeting of the signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which ranks orang-utans as 'threatened with extinction'. No charges have been pressed against Safari World director Pin Kiewkacha, a rich and well-connected Chinese-Thai who says the orang-utans were either bred in the zoo or donated. 'Why would I import illegal apes when, 20 years ago, orang-utans were so easy to find?' Mr Pin said in August. Animal-welfare campaigners, he said, 'are out to get me'. 'It's true - we are,' says Edwin Wiek, the Thailand representative for the Borneo Orang-utan Survival Association (BOS). 'We are convinced a crime has been committed.' To say some orang-utans were 'donated' does not excuse illegal possession, says Mr Wiek. As for claims about breeding, he says, the numbers don't add up: orang-utans reproduce too slowly. 'There is no mathematical way that could potentially explain the legal presence of this large number of Bornean orang-utan babies inside Safari World,' said world expert Dr Willie Smits after visiting the zoo with police. DNA tests would indisputably prove which apes were born at the zoo. Remarkably, however, it took until a few days ago for the Thai government to begin the process, despite a BOS offer to pay the US$8,000 bill, plus the greater cost of repatriating the animals and reintroducing them to the wild. 'The Safari World case looks set to be a major embarrassment for the Thai government at the Cites meeting,' said Mr Wiek. It won't be the only one. Consider the case of Luethai Tiewcharoen, a Chinese-Thai nicknamed 'Fatty'. Last October, Thai authorities raided his house in Nonthaburi province and found six live tigers, two live orang-utans, four frozen tiger carcasses, the bones and meat of pangolins (scaly anteaters), snakes and turtles, and a bucketful of freshly amputated bear paws. The US$125,000 haul was believed to be on its way to restaurants in China, South Korea and Japan. Luethai was arrested, charged, and granted bail. He promptly disappeared. Six months later, he was caught red-handed in northeast Thailand with a butchered tiger corpse in the boot of his car. Again, he was arrested, charged, and granted bail - then disappeared. His whereabouts remain unknown. Police say Luethai is part of a regionwide trafficking network, which makes their failure to put him behind bars doubly astonishing. Tiger carcasses found at his slaughterhouse had been de-clawed, which suggests they were raised on one of Thailand's many ill-regulated tiger farms, where staff routinely rip out the animals' claws with pliers while still cubs. While critically endangered in the wild, tigers breed surprisingly well in captivity; a mother can give birth to three or four cubs per year. This means big bucks for traders. It also adds up to yet another pre-Cites scandal. Three Thai forestry officials are being investigated by the prime minister's office for allowing the export of 100 Bengal tigers from Sri Racha Tiger Zoo, a well-known big cat breeder outside Bangkok, in 2002. The destination was a zoo in Hainan. The senior-most official, Plodprasop Suraswadi, denied all wrongdoing, while the Chinese ambassador to Thailand dismissed reports that the tigers had been delivered to his country for 'culinary purposes'. Mr Plodprasop has little to fear. In Thailand, investigations of scandal-tainted officials go nowhere, and then are quietly forgotten. Thailand's record-breaking trade in protected animals will be harder to forget. 'This country has seen the world's largest export of tigers,' said Mr Wiek, 'and the world's largest import of orang-utans. It's incredible.' Two rival agencies of the Thai government are tasked with investigating Safari World: the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants (DNP) and the Forestry Police. In August, the DNP sent a letter to the Forestry Police saying there was 'no evidence of any wrongdoing' at the zoo, and therefore no reason to file charges. 'We have done our job,' said Dr Schwann Tunhikorn, who is both director of the DNP's wildlife agency and the acting chief of Cites in Thailand. The recipient of that letter, Forestry Police chief Major-General Sawek Pinsinchai, disagrees. He accuses the DNP of deliberately hampering the investigation for fear of implicating its own 'negligent' officials. General Sawek said the police raids he ordered have already dramatically disrupted the wildlife trade. Despite a Forestry Police raid last year, protected species are still sold at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok. Other animals - including orang-utans - are available on request, say activists. General Sawek vows to press charges against Mr Pin, and remove the animals to a safe home. Campaigners fear for the orang-utans' safety. Since last November's raid, 13 have reportedly died of natural causes. Mr Wiek and his fellow conservationists intend to protest outside the Cites conference at what they see as gross mismanagement of the Safari World case. When asked if this will embarrass Cites' host country, Thai delegate Schwann Tunhikorn sounds incredulous: 'Why should it?'