Wildlife trafficking: Nothing can deter the king
Operating with impunity, Vixay Keosavangís trafficking ring spans Africa and Asia
On a bumpy dirt road not far from the banks of the Mekong River, the compound of Vixay Keosavang stands out for its iron gates and cinder-block walls topped with barbed wire, a contrast to thq rickety wooden stilt houses in the shade of rubber trees nearby.
A security guard who opened the gate said there were tigers, bears, lizards and pangolins, a type of endangered anteater, inside. He then sought permission from his boss before letting a reporter beyond the entrance, calling Vixay on his mobile phone. Vixay, who spoke politely in a mixture of Thai and Laotian, denied that there were any animals inside or that he was in the wildlife business.
“There's nothing there,” Vixay said of the compound. “Who told you about it?”
According to an investigation by the International Herald Tribune, Vixay runs a wildlife trafficking empire spanning the African savanna and Asian jungles, funneling hundreds of thousands of endangered animals to customers in Vietnam and China.
Steve Galster, the founder and executive director of Freeland, a counter-trafficking organization based in Bangkok, which has been tracking Vixay for the past eight years, calls him the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking,” in reference to the Colombian drug lord.
“He is the single largest known illegal wildlife trafficker in Asia,” Galster said.
The South African authorities prosecuting a case of rhinoceros horn smuggling described Vixay's company, Xaysavang Trading, as perpetrating “one of the biggest swindles in environmental crime history.”
For at least a decade, Vixay, who is Laotian, has smuggled large quantities of ivory and truckloads of endangered animals, including tigers, bears, snakes, lizards and turtles, all in violation of a UN treaty intended to protect wildlife, according to interviews with law enforcement officers and a trove of documents gathered by Freeland.
Representatives from the 177 countries that have signed the UN treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, are meeting in Bangkok to update restrictions on animal trading. Laos became a signatory to the treaty in 2004.
The IHT investigation was based on interviews with the Thai, Chinese, South African, Laotian and Vietnamese authorities ; villagers who live near Vixay's Hong Tong compound; and hundreds of pages of documents, including South African court transcripts, business contracts and Laotian customs documents that show the scale of his operations.
The burgeoning trade in exotic wildlife, which has devastated elephant populations in Africa and is draining the jungles of Asia of many types of animals, has been fuelled by rising wealth in China and Vietnam, where tradition holds that rare concoctions like
a paste made from tiger bones help cure a variety of ailments.
Vixay has met this growing demand for wildlife from his base in the impoverished countryside of Laos, a thinly populated country bordering Vietnam and China and known for its weak rule of law and widespread corruption.
He has operated with remarkable impunity. Shipments of rhino horns and ivory intercepted by foreign governments were addressed directly to his company in Laos, including a 2009 seizure by the Kenyan wildlife police of 280 kilograms, or 620 pounds, of elephant tusks.
For years, his associates and the inner workings of the syndicate remained somewhat opaque to the small group of Thai investigators trailing him. But in 2011, for the first time, a part of Vixay's operations was publicly exposed by the arrest and trial of his deputy, thousands of kilometres away in South Africa.
The trial, which ended in November with a 40-year-prison sentence for his deputy, made public Vixay's large-scale operation of rhino horn smuggling, including his syndicate's use of Thai prostitutes to help procure the horns.
Evidence at the trial that tied Vixay directly to the smuggling initially raised hopes among investigators that his syndicate would be severely disrupted, if not dismantled.
But more than a year and a half after the arrest of his deputy in South Africa, Vixay remains a free man, shielded by the government in Laos, which has been unresponsive to requests by foreign governments to shut down his operation. A Laotian law enforcement official said there was not enough evidence to prosecute Vixay, but he added that going after wildlife traffickers was difficult in Laos because they were connected to “influential people.”
In the meantime, Vixay's business appears to be thriving.
Vixay's compound, in the central province of Bolikhamxai, is concealed by its remoteness, a nine-kilometre, or six-mile, drive from the nearest paved road. The visit to the compound in mid-February was the first by a reporter. “Do not enter” is spray-painted on the metal gate.
Yet in many ways Vixay's animal trading business is hiding in plain sight. A woman who runs a small shop nearby said that each week, two or three large trucks leave Vixay's compound filled with animals, including tiger cubs and pangolins, which are considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China.
The trucks have Vietnamese license plates, said the woman, whose name is being withheld for her safety. Vixay, who is in his 50s, has numerous farms in Laos, according to the Thai police, who have been tracking his movements. The Thai authorities say Vixay and other Laos-based traffickers operate animal “laundering” operations. Endangered species, like pangolins, tigers and turtles from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, are smuggled across the Mekong River into Laos.
“They pay bribes district by district,” said Maj. Gen. Narasak Hemnithi, the commander of the Thai Natural Resource and Environment Crime Suppression Division. The Laotian authorities then issue documents certifying that the animals have been bred in the country and thus can be exported, which for some species is authorised under the UN treaty.
Freeland has obtained official Laotian wildlife trading certificates, contracts and company registration documents related to Vixay's company. Founded in Bangkok more than a decade ago, Freeland is staffed by current and former law enforcement officials from Australia, Britain, Thailand and the United States.
The organisation is financed partly by the US government and helps organise meetings among law enforcement officials from Asia and Africa to combat wildlife trafficking. A single sales contract from 2009 that was obtained by Freeland shows the large volume of animals that Vixay trades in. Xaysavang Trading agreed to sell 70,000 snakes, 20,000 turtles and 20,000 monitor lizards to a Vietnamese company in a deal worth $8,60,000.
Experts say the sheer volume of animals in that deal and many others is evidence of laundering. Breeding 20,000 of the species of turtle that Vixay commonly sells—the yellow-headed temple turtle, or Heosemys annandalii — could take a decade even with sophisticated equipment and a vast farm, according to Doug Hendrie, an adviser at Education for Nature, a group in Vietnam that conducts investigations into wildlife crime.
The hills along the Mekong River east and south of the Laotian capital, Vientiane, are a hub for animal trading. About a dozen kilometres from Vixay's compound, hidden from the main road, is a walled enclosure of cages that were visible to a visiting reporter. The cages contained 7,000 to 8,000 monkeys, according to a security guard.
The business is run by Vannaseng Trading, which has a license with the Laotian Department of Agriculture and Forestry to trade “wild forest and marine animals,” according to the company's registration document. Among the animals Vannaseng trades are pangolins, which is illegal under the UN treaty.
Vannaseng and other companies, including Vixay's, have obtained certificates from the Laotian government saying that pangolins were bred in their facilities. Wildlife experts say there is a glaring flaw with those Laotian documents: With rare exceptions, pangolins do not breed in captivity. Weak law enforcement, pliable officials and porous borders make Laos ideal as a transit point for the trafficked wildlife.
On January 6, customs officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport, near Bangkok, inspected a lime-green suitcase from the baggage claim area and discovered rhino horns hidden in a large toy hippopotamus.
They arrested the traveller who had checked in the suitcase, a Vietnamese man, Pham Quang Loc, who had flown to Bangkok from Mozambique via Ethiopia.
At a quickly convened news conference, Loc was paraded before the news media along with the seized rhino horns.
But there was more to the case — Loc was just a mule, the Thai police now say.
Three Thai police officers were involved in trying to get the suitcase past customs and are now under investigation, according to General Narasak, the commander of the Natural Resource and Environment Crime Suppression Division of the Thai police. Also under investigation is a Vietnamese-speaking Laotian woman who was at the airport and who had offered to serve as Loc's interpreter.
When the authorities suspected that the Laotian woman was linked to the smuggling ring — she was overheard on her mobile phone saying, “the bag did not make it through” — they seized her phone and searched her purse and found 1,00,000 Thai baht, or about $3,400, in cash. “We believe the money was meant to bribe the Thai police officers,” General Narasak said.
Also intriguing for Thai investigators was one of the names in the Laotian woman’s phone memory: Vixay.
The number matched the Laotian mobile phone number of Vixay Keosavang.