The Lao government’s complicity in a multi-million dollar illegal wildlife trade

The CITES meeting, currently taking place in South Africa, comes at a crucial time for the world’s wildlife and for conservation. Illegal trade in wildlife has boomed in recent years. The trade is now worth US$23 billion a year.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna came into force in 1975. This year’s meeting is the 17th Conference of Parties. 183 countries are party to the convention.

Wildlife in danger

Today, there are only 30,000 rhinos. That’s only 5% of the number 40 years ago. Every year, about 1,000 are killed by poachers. Recently the number killed has increased.

A recent elephant census revealed that the population of elephants has fallen by 30% in the last seven years. Today, 352,271 African savanna elephants live in 18 countries. Last year 20,000 elephants were killed for their tusks.

There are only 3,500 tigers in the wild.

The Eastern Gorilla was listed as critically endangered in this year’s IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Its population has declined by 70% in the last 20 years. Four of the six great apes are now critically endangered.

Smaller animals such as pangolins are facing extinction. In August 2016, Indonesian police seized more than 650 frozen pangolins in East Java.

Sub-species of turtles, pythons, antelopes and birds are also under threat.

The Bach brothers and an illegal wildlife smuggling network

For the past year, the Guardian has worked with independent investigators at Freeland, an anti-trafficking organisation. A series of reports in the Guardian coincides with the CITES meeting, looking in detail at the criminal networks behind the illegal wildlife trade.

One of the Guardian’s reports exposes the activities of two Vietnamese men, Bach Mai and his brother Bach Van Limh. Bach Mai lives in Nakhon Phanom, a town in north-east Thailand on the banks of the River Mekong, across from Laos. Bach Ban Limh lives in Son Tay in Vietnam.

They export wildlife through Laos for the markets of Vietnam and China.

The Guardian investigation reveals that the Bach brothers are part of a criminal network involved in illegal wildlife trade, importing drugs, running prostitutes, and smuggling cars. Three Lao companies are involved: Vinasakhone Trading; Vannaseng Trading; and the Xeosavang Trading Company run by Vixay Keosavang, a notorious wildlife trafficker.

Vixay Keosavang (centre) on holiday with the Bach brothers.

Vixay Keosavang (centre) on holiday with the Bach brothers.

All three companies ran wildlife farms. They imported tigers bred in captivity (which is legal, but not for commercial trade). Vannaseng illegally imported 2,000 macaque monkeys captured and sold by villagers in Cambodia.

The Bach brothers were also involved in importing bones of lions from South Africa to be sold in Vietnam and China.

In 2007, a rumour went around Vietnam that a government official had used rhino horn to cure his cancer. The fact that rhino horn and fingernails are basically the same (and have the same medical properties) does not seem to have been part of the rumour. As a result, the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam soared.

The Bach brothers and Keosavang cashed in on this demand. Although trade in rhino horn is illegal under CITES, they used a loophole that allowed hunters in South Africa to take home one set of rhino horns each year as a trophy. Here are Nick Davies and Oliver Holmes writing in the Guardian:

They set up “pseudo” hunts in which a willing stooge was paid to stand next to a professional hunter while a rhino was shot dead and had its horn removed. The stooge would then have a photo taken with the corpse and allow their name to be used on the paperwork to take the horn to Asia.

The Lao government didn’t just turn a blind eye

Last week, the Lao government announced that it was closing all commercial tiger farms in the country.

But the Guardian’s investigations also reveal that high level government officials in Laos were actually helping the wildlife criminals.

In an apparent breach of current national and international law, for more than a decade the office of the prime minister of Laos has cut deals with three leading traffickers to move hundreds of tonnes of wildlife through selected border crossings.
In 2014 alone, these deals covered $45m (£35m) worth of animal body parts and included agreed quotas requiring the disabling or killing of 165 tigers, more than 650 rhinos and more than 16,000 elephants.

The Lao government has taken no actions against the people running the wildlife farms, despite the clear evidence that has been repeatedly presented to them, of illegal activity. Instead, the Guardian reveals, the government took 2% tax on the illegal wildlife trade.

In early 2015, Laos was suspended from CITES because the government failed to produce a national plan to deal with the ivory trade. Laos produced the report and was reinstated. In January 2016, Laos was suspended again, because it failed to produce a report on how it was implementing the ivory plan.

CITES is the only global body working on protecting the world’s wildlife. But CITES has no detectives, no police powers, and no firearms. While there are huge profits to be made by criminals involved in wildlife smuggling, Davies and Holmes point out that, “Up against this collection of highly organised and well-resourced criminals, we currently deploy some of the world’s weakest law enforcement.”

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