Friday, 27 December 2013

U.S. Offers Reward in Wildlife-Trade Fight – via Herp Digest

November 13, 2013, NY Times by Thomas Fuller

BANGKOK — Taking a page from the battle against international drug cartels, the United States announced on Wednesday a $1 million reward for information to help dismantle one of Asia’s largest wildlife-trafficking syndicates.

In what officials said was the first time such a reward had been offered, the State Department said it was targeting a syndicate based in Laos, the impoverished and authoritarian Southeast Asian country whose government, investigators say, has been uncooperative in stopping a thriving trade of African ivory, rhino horns, tiger bones and endangered animals harvested by the thousands from Asian jungles.

In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said the syndicate, the Xaysavang Network, “facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos and other species for products such as ivory.” The network, he said, spans South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.

Investigators say the syndicate is headed by a Laotian businessman, Vixay Keosavang, who was the subject of an article in The New York Times in March.

Reached on his cellphone on Wednesday, Mr. Vixay said he was being framed. “There are people slandering me,” he said. “If you want to know the truth, you should ask Lao officials.”

Asked about rhino horns sent from South Africa and addressed to him personally — evidence that was presented in a trial that concluded last year in South Africa — Mr. Vixay acknowledged that he had received them.

“I admit that I accepted them in good faith,” he said, adding that Laotian officials were aware of the shipments. But, he said, “I never ordered them.”

Bouaxam Inthalangsi, an official at the Laotian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, said Wednesday that American officials gave him documents last week related to Mr. Vixay and the Xaysavang Network. But he said it was not enough evidence to arrest Mr. Vixay, who is based in Bolikhamxai Province outside the capital, Vientiane.

“According to what we know right now, he can walk free in Bolikhamxai because he is not guilty,” Mr. Bouaxam said. “We must act strictly in accordance with the law.”

Laos, run by an opaque Communist Party, ranks 160th out of 176 countries and territories in the corruption index published by Transparency International, a monitoring group. The authorities in neighboring countries say Laos has increasingly been used as a transit point for trafficked wildlife that is sent to consumers in East Asia, especially China and Vietnam.

Investigators believe that Mr. Vixay has enjoyed a great degree of protection from the Laotian authorities, and they point to voluminous evidence of Mr. Vixay’s wildlife-trafficking operations. A shipment of ivory and rhino horns intercepted by the Kenyan authorities in 2009 was addressed directly to Mr. Vixay’s company, Xaysavang Trading, in Laos.

The largest trove of evidence against Mr. Vixay, investigators say, came during the trial in South Africa of Chumlong Lemtongthai, a Thai national who South African prosecutors say was Mr. Vixay’s deputy.

In the trial, prosecutors laid bare a system in which Mr. Chumlong used Thai prostitutes to pose as rhino hunters, illegally using a loophole in South African law that allows hunters to bring back one horn as a trophy. Prosecutors called this “one of the biggest swindles in environmental crime history.” Mr. Chumlong was sentenced to 40 years in prison, which was reduced to 30 years on appeal.

Invoices presented as evidence in the trial showed that the rhino horns were in Mr. Vixay’s name and sent to his address in Laos. Mr. Vixay said in an interview that he had quit “a long time ago” what he described as his import-export business.

Yet Mr. Vixay’s wildlife-trading business is well known in the village along the Mekong River where his large walled compound is. During a visit by this reporter in February, a security guard who answered the door said the compound contained tigers, bears and other endangered animals whose trade is restricted or banned by a United Nations treaty. Villagers reported seeing regular truckloads of pangolins, an animal that resembles an anteater. Trading in pangolins is illegal under the United Nations treaty.

The United States government has been increasingly aggressive in combating wildlife trafficking, partly out of concern over the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns. More than 800 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa this year, far more than in any previous year.

In July, the Obama administration issued an executive order calling wildlife trafficking an “international crisis” and instructing law enforcement agencies to “promote and encourage” actions against trafficking in other countries.

Brooke Darby, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said the trafficking reward program, which in the future could also be used for trafficking in arms, people and counterfeit currency, was modeled on a narcotics reward system that began in 1986 and has given out more than $87 million to informants.

“We want to go after everyone in this process,” she said. “The people who ordered that the poaching be done, the people who accept bribes along the way, the people who forge customs documents, the people who receive the products.”

Ms. Darby would not comment on the specifics of how the United States would try to dismantle the trafficking network in Laos, where security agencies are secretive and where cooperation with foreign governments has been highly circumscribed in other matters. One example of the limited cooperation is what appeared to be the abduction of an American-trained agronomist last December who was last seen at a police checkpoint. Despite numerous requests for information by foreign diplomats in Laos, the police have never fully explained his disappearance.

News of the award came as a surprise both to Mr. Bouaxam, the Laotian official, and to Mr. Vixay.

Steven Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a countertrafficking organization based in Bangkok that has been instrumental in tracking Mr. Vixay, described the reward as a “great development.” “In the world of wildlife trafficking and corruption, you gotta fight money with money,” he said in an email. 

No comments:

Post a comment

You only need to enter your comment once! Comments will appear once they have been moderated. This is so as to stop the would-be comedian who has been spamming the comments here with inane and often offensive remarks. You know who you are!

Related Posts with Thumbnails