January 30, 2018 2:00 pm JST

Noose tightens around Southeast Asia's illegal wildlife trade

Thai police strike at a criminal 'multinational' based in Laos, links to Africa, China

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

A file photo from Jan. 29, 2008, of Thai naval officers and forestry officials with dead tigers, leopards, and pangolins seized during a raid along the banks of the Mekong river in northeastern Thailand. © AP

BANGKOK -- Boonchai Bach's world of impunity crumbled this month in Nakhon Phanom, the provincial town in northeast Thailand near the border with Laos from where he and his older brother, Bach Van Limh, allegedly used as a logistics and financial hub for Southeast Asia's massive illegal wildlife trade.

The 40-year-old Vietnamese-Thai was arrested by local police on Jan. 19, and his capture is expected to shake up the region's largest wildlife trafficking syndicate. 

Conservationists expect the breakthrough to shed more light on Laos, mainland Southeast Asia's poorest country, which is ruled by a repressive communist regime. The closeted country provides sanctuary to Vixay Keosavang, a local businessman believed to be the kingpin in the syndicate involving the Bach brothers.

Freeland, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking organization, has dubbed the syndicate Hydra for its many-headed operations. The U.S. government also has Hydra in its crosshairs, having offered a reward in 2013 of $1 million for help in ending Vixay's criminal network.

The Thai police have reason to crow over the arrest of Bach, previously considered an "untouchable" in trafficking circles. According to Police Colonel Chutrakul Yodmadee, an entire network is in the bag, including the courier, the facilitator, and the agent who planned to export the contraband across the Thai-Lao border. "We even got the moneyman behind the gang," the colonel said in a statement. 

The arrest of Bach, who was granted bail by a Thai court on Friday, was a triumph in perseverance dating from early December when customs officers at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok's main international gateway, monitored the arrival of suitcases containing 14 rhino horns from Africa. These were allowed to pass, leading to the subsequent arrest of a Chinese courier and two more of Bach's operatives. Trafficking in rhino horn fetches up to $100,000 per kg on the black market.

These disruptions to the regional wildlife trade come as shot in the arm to Freeland, which has been watching the Bach family since 2003. It is a crucial conduit for Vixay's wildlife supply chain linking Africa to China, Laos, and Vietnam.

"The Bach brothers ran the supply chain, gave out money, and facilitated the poaching and trading," Onkuri Majumdar, deputy director of programs at Freeland, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Vixay's syndicate is like a lean, mean multinational working in the shadows."

But conservationists are not holding their breath, or expecting any sudden turnabout in Laos. The land-locked country has been unswayed by international media reports identifying it as the nerve center for  illegal wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia. British and U.S. newspapers have exposed the official protective blanket that has been thrown around Vixay, who lives in mansion close to the banks of the Mekong river.

"A report by Thai intelligence, seen by The Guardian, shows Keosavang signed formal agreements with the finance department of the Lao government that allowed his company during 2003, its first year in business, to traffic more than $11 million worth of animals through the country into Vietnam and China," the London newspaper reported in 2016. The 2003 agreements "set a precedent for future animal trades," where in exchange the head of the Xaysavang Trading Company had to pay a 2% tax on the value of the wildlife traded.

In November, the World Wildlife Fund described a swathe of mainland Southeast Asia the Mekong flows through as "Ground Zero" in the illegal wildlife trade. The report flagged tigers, elephants, bears, and pangolins as being in heavy demand in the Golden Triangle, a notorious, crime-ridden border area where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet.

Rhinos, gaurs, leopards, and turtles are among other animals listed as endangered that are sold openly there. Two corners of the Laos, Boten and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, cater to clients from China and Vietnam. 

The United Nations Environment Program values the global wildlife trade at $23 billion a year, coming fourth in illicit trading behind drugs, human trafficking, and arms smuggling. Estimates for the trade in Southeast Asia vary from $2 billion to a quarter of the global business. The Bach brothers were tapped into elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, tigers, and lions, according to Freeland.

For development experts watching Laos, the Vixay syndicate is part of the grim political reality of Laos despite recent efforts by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith to crack down on corruption.

"Vixay has operated with amazing impunity because he is obviously keeping the right people happy," said one foreign observer speaking on condition of anonymity. "The communist party serves in large part to maintain harmony among various family and business cliques, which might actually make matters worse." He dubbed corruption in Laos as "cromunism" since "cronyism operates under the thin veneer of communism."

There is evidence that corruption in Laos has become more entrenched in recent decades, and in some ways more sophisticated. Visitors who see clear signs of affluence in cities such as Vientiane and Pakse can only wonder where the wealth comes from.  

Laos was ranked 123 among 176 countries surveyed for last year's global corruption perception index, published annually by Transparency International, an anti-graft watchdog. Boonchai's arrest could provide some insights into official collusion into the darker side of the Laotian economy.  

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