How should we stop poaching in southeast Asia? By forgetting the kingpins

Authorities keep arresting people said to be bosses of wildlife trafficking, but that isn’t making a dent in the problem

Rachel Nuwer
Wednesday 26 September 2018 13:47
Focusing on undesirable characters such as Chumlong Lemtongthai will not halt the atrocities being committed against rare wildlife
Focusing on undesirable characters such as Chumlong Lemtongthai will not halt the atrocities being committed against rare wildlife

In 2003, enterprising criminals in southeast Asia realised they could exploit a loophole in South Africa’s hunting laws to move rhino horn legally across international borders. Normally, North Americans and Europeans account for the bulk of South Africa’s rhino hunting permits but that year, 10 Vietnamese “hunters” quietly applied as well.

Hunters are allowed to transport legally obtained trophies across borders under international and domestic laws. The Vietnamese hunters each returned home with a mounted horn, head or even the whole body of a rhino.

Word spread. Though Vietnam and other Asian countries have no history of big-game hunting, South Africa was inundated with applicants from Asia, who sometimes paid $85,000 or more to shoot a single white rhino.

That marked the beginning of the illicit industry of ”pseudo-hunting” – a first step toward the rhino poaching crisis raging today. And the story of one of its chief practitioners shows the lengths to which criminals will go to move wildlife contraband.

No one knows just how many rhino horns were actually sent back to Asia as purported hunting trophies. South Africa has records of more than 650 rhino trophies leaving the country for Vietnam from 2003 to 2010 – goods worth some $200m (£152m) to $300m on the black market. Vietnam has corresponding paperwork for only a fraction of that figure.

By 2012, South African investigators had identified at least five Vietnamese-run criminal syndicates exploiting the pseudo-hunting loophole. Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai and his band of gun-toting prostitutes were surely the most remarkable of the gangs.

To acquire more hunting permits, Lemtongthai hired more than two dozen women to pose as hunters. They received around $550 to hand over copies of their passports and take a brief “holiday” with Lemtongthai and his men in South Africa.

Lemtongthai probably would have got away with the scheme were it not for Johnny Olivier, a fixer and interpreter in South Africa. Olivier worked for Lemtongthai but after 50 or so rhino kills, his conscience began to nag at him.

The carcass of a rhino killed by poachers in the Kruger National park

“This is not trophies or whatever,” Olivier says he recalled thinking. “This is now getting into slaughtering, purely for money. These rhinos are my nation’s inheritance.”

Olivier discussed Lemtongthai’s dealings with a private investigator, who began digging and eventually compiled 222 pages of evidence.

When the case went to court in 2012, South African prosecutors described Lemtongthai as the mastermind behind “one of the biggest swindles in environmental crime history”. To Lemtongthai’s shock, and that of many observers, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

It was a punishment unheard-of in its severity, especially in a country with notoriously low rates of conviction for alleged wildlife crimes. Of 317 arrests related to rhino poaching in 2015, for example, just 15 per cent resulted in guilty verdicts.

But Lemtongthai served nowhere near 40 years. In 2014, his sentence was reduced to 13 years, plus a fine of around $78,000.

This month, South Africa granted Lemtongthai early release after serving six years. Amid uproar from conservation groups and government officials, he was swiftly deported to Thailand.

It’s not often a reporter gets to talk to a man convicted of systematic rhino slaughter but I interviewed Lemtongthai at the Pretoria Central Correction Center on a sunny Sunday morning in October 2016.

The guards led me into a spartan office where I found him seated on a bench near the wall, wearing an orange jumpsuit with “Corrections” written in circular patterns all over it. Wire-rimmed glasses framed his dark eyes, and his hair, once dyed black, was shaved short and grey, matching the stubble on his chin and upper lip.

I introduced myself, turned on the tape recorder and told him I was there to hear his story. After some hesitation – he didn’t appreciate how the press had depicted him in the past, without even speaking to him, he said – he agreed to talk.

The Thai national was sentenced to 40 years in prison

“Can you tell me about your involvement with rhino hunting?” I began.

In a gush of broken English, Lemtongthai told me he was a legitimate businessman who recruited Asian tourists to hunt in South Africa. “I get tourists to shoot, I get commission,” he said. “I’m never poaching. I go legal way.”

He described having what he thought were legitimate hunting permits, only to be arrested by South African police for fraud, and railroaded into jail after signing what he believed was an agreement to pay a fine.

Soon enough, he was practically shaking, his eyes wide, his voice high.

“He said lie to me! My lawyer! Rhino farmer go home, me go to jail 40 years!”

The way he told it, it sounded plausible Lemtongthai had been a scapegoat for savvier criminals who took advantage of his ignorance to get rhino horn out of the country.

According to South African and Thai authorities and conservationists, Lemtongthai’s boss was Vixay Keosavang, a Lao national once labelled the Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking. Keosavang has denied involvement in trafficking, and Lemtongthai told me he had not had contact with the man after his arrest.

“Vixay never talk. Only me, ‘kingpin,’” Lemtongthai scoffed. “Company, friend, family – never talk to me.”

Mr. Big Doesn’t Matter

Lemtongthai’s case illustrates one of the most profound obstacles to disrupting the international trade in illegal wildlife: the decentralised, constantly morphing networks along which poached goods are transported.

South Africa tightened its sport hunting rules after Lemtongthai was arrested, and in the overall story of the illegal wildlife trade, pseudo-hunting proved a “temporary sideshow,” as conservationist Ronald Orenstein put it in his book Ivory, Horn and Blood.

Straight-up poaching and trafficking now dominate. Yet many of the players are the same.

Again and again Lemtongthai and Keosavang’s associates from a decade ago, or longer, have turned up in wildlife trafficking cases, among them Bach “Boonchai” Mai, arrested by Thai police this year.

A haul of ivory tusks found by Hong Kong customs staff

But because of the way the poaching and trafficking networks function, taking down any one of the supposed kingpins will not stop the illegal trade.

To get their prize, rhino poachers – often desperately poor local men living on the fringes of parks and reserves – tend to sneak in under cover of darkness, sometimes during the full “poacher’s moon”, as it’s often called.

Once in the park, they usually wait until first light to kill a rhino. Afterward they may await well-organised pick-ups or bury the horn for later retrieval. Some simply run home with the horn.

After a horn – or a tusk, bag of bones, box of scales or other animal contraband – is smuggled out of a park, the goods are usually transferred along a chain of “runners” who take them to larger and larger cities. At some point, Asian businessmen based in Africa are likely to get involved – generally Vietnamese bosses for rhino horn, Chinese for ivory.

Once the contraband begins its trafficking journey the route often isn’t direct. A China-bound ivory shipment may be sent first to Spain from Togo, or else a passenger carrying rhino horn may fly to Dubai before heading to Kuala Lumpur and then Hong Kong.

This roundabout travel obscures the goods’ true origin and destination, and the route often reflects the placement of compromised officials who allow for a smooth journey.

“People who operate in the legal field – in government or in the transportation or wildlife industry – play a vital role in ensuring that rhino horn or any other wildlife contraband passes along the supply chain,” says Annette Hübschle-Finch, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Center for Criminology.

“They are the gatekeepers and intermediaries. They provide the link between the bush and the market.”

Trafficking bosses themselves are often also involved in legitimate and even well-known local businesses.

In the West, “organised criminals live in a somewhat parallel society,” says Tim Wittig, a conservation scientist at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. But among wildlife traffickers, “the big criminals are typically also big business people”.

“Usually they’re involved in logistics-type businesses – trading or shipping companies, for example – or in commodity-based ones, which is why it’s easy for them to move things around,” he adds.

These individuals are sometimes referred to as kingpins, a term experts say is overused.

“In some ways, chasing after a Mr Big behind it all, is a bit of a myth,” says Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with conservation group Traffic, and author of Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade.

One of the most important characteristics of poaching and smuggling networks is their diversity, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on international crime at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

While some networks are highly organised, others are completely dispersed. A dealer smuggling ivory out of an African port may not know the local boss overseeing poaching or the trader who sells the contraband in Asia.

In the cartels run by just one, or a few, individuals, vacuums left by arrests are quickly filled.

That is why convictions, even high-profile ones like Lemtongthai’s, usually have little effect on illegal trade – in wildlife, drugs or any kind of contraband, Felbab-Brown pointed out.

South African rhino breeder John Hume trims horns on his animals to deter poachers and sells them to depress prices

Three recent arrests for illegal wildlife trafficking have received wide attention among conservationists: Feisal Mohamed Ali, charged with trafficking in ivory in Kenya; Abdurahman Mohammed Sheikh, another alleged ivory trafficker in Kenya; and Yang Fenglan, Tanzania’s so-called “queen of ivory”. All have denied the charges and await trial.

But even if they are all found guilty, Wittig notes, their trade would account for only a meagre 10.9 tons of ivory over the past decade – the equivalent of 1,500 elephants. By Wittig’s estimate, the total amount they may have trafficked is just 10 per cent of the African ivory smuggled in that period. Nor has poaching declined since the trio were arrested.

“Arresting a few alleged wildlife-trafficking ‘kingpins’ may be a useful symbolic tool for promoting the importance and feasibility of strong enforcement to the general public,” Wittig says. But “it is not likely to be effective in actually saving protected wildlife, especially if done in isolation”.

Changing this largely depends on changing the way the world addresses the illegal wildlife trade.

John Sellar, formerly chief of enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has argued we should instead think of wildlife trafficking as a crime, not a conservation issue.

But most of those tasked with fighting this type of crime are conservationists, rangers and wildlife managers. Sellar and other experts argue the job should instead be assigned to police, detectives, money-laundering experts and the courts.

That criminal groups dealing in wildlife tend to include multinational players further complicates investigations. Governments often do not share information or effectively collaborate across borders.

After decades of work, for example, Samuel Wasser, chairman of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, has developed a game-changing forensic method that allows experts to use DNA to determine the geographic origins of seized tusks, and thus to map poaching hotspots in Africa.

Wasser could produce a map showing officials and law enforcement exactly where they need to go to shut down the ivory trade. Yet most countries don’t get around to sending him samples of poached ivory for a year or more after seizure. Some refuse to share samples at all.

“That’s the hardest part for me, seeing how powerful a tool we have. Yet countries are so reluctant to let us use it,” Wasser says.

Even officials in countries plagued by poachers may not cooperate. Police officers don’t talk to customs officials, who don’t talk to rangers. Rangers don’t have access to policymakers, who don’t consult conservation groups.

“The intelligence environment is like spy-versus-spy,” says Ken Maggs, head ranger at South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

Breaking up the decentralised criminal networks of poachers, experts say, will require the building of new networks among those who oppose the decimation of animal species. Arresting “kingpins” here and there will never be a substitute.

“If the genie in the bottle were to grant me just one wish to combat international wildlife crime, I would ask that everyone work more collaboratively,” Sellar has written. “I remain convinced, utterly convinced, that we would make major inroads into combating international wildlife crime if we could only get our act together.”

This article was adapted from Rachel Nuwer’s new book Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, published on 11 October in the UK.

The New York Times

© New York Times

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