Laos, Destination in Illegal Ivory Trade, So Far Eludes Global Crackdown


By Thomas Fuller

Date Published

When the authorities in Thailand recently intercepted huge stashes of ivory stuffed inside shipments of beans and tea leaves, the seizures were described as groundbreaking international police work.

Europol, the international police agency, said the sting operation that led to them was “the biggest ever coordinated international law enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species.”

But there was a major omission in the operation, which took place over the past four months and uncovered more than 1,300 elephant tusks: There was no cooperation with and no arrests in the country to which the ivory was being shipped, Laos, a thinly populated Southeast Asian nation that shares a border with Thailand and in recent years has become a major transit point for a variety of exotic and endangered animals.

Many countries across the world have enhanced their campaigns against wildlife trafficking syndicates that are draining Asia’s jungles and the African savanna of elephants, rhinoceroses and other animals, many of them considered choice foods in parts of Asia. But Laos, which is run by a secretive and authoritarian communist government, stands out as a bastion of impunity, say those involved in the crackdown.

Criminal gangs take advantage of the weak rule of law in Laos, said Steven Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a countertrafficking organization based in Bangkok that works with law enforcement agencies to track down animal smuggling networks around the world.

“It’s pretty clear that Vietnamese and Chinese crooks are using Laos as their preferred staging and transit ground these days,” he said.

Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has recently sponsored legislation intended to help African nations fight trafficking and to scrutinize the cooperation of governments in antitrafficking efforts.

“Laos hasn’t recorded a single illicit wildlife seizure since officials started keeping records in 1989, making it a smuggler’s paradise,” he said in an email.

“The Laos government cites its lack of resources as an excuse,” he said, “but it’s quite clear that officials are profiting from wildlife trafficking.”

Phonesavanh Sophakhamphanh, deputy director of the wildlife inspection division under the Laos Department of Forest Inspection, denied that Laotian officials are profiting from trafficking and maintained that his country is an unwitting transit destination.

“Laos is not the country killing the animals,” Mr. Phonesavanh said. “They are killed in African countries.”

“We are ready to coordinate with all sides,” he said. “If the U.S. government or international community has good information, please pass it along. We are ready to tackle the issue.”

But law enforcement officials in neighboring countries and antitrafficking groups say that very specific information has been handed over to Laos on several occasions and that nothing has been done with it.

One of the world’s most prominent traffickers, American officials say, is aLaotian businessman, Vixay Keosavang. He had so little fear of being caught that he had rhino horns shipped directly to him, according to documents submitted at a trial in South Africa of one of his associates, who is now serving 40 years in prison there. Similarly, a shipment of about 600 pounds of elephant tusks intercepted in 2009 by the Kenyan wildlife authorities was being sent to Mr. Vixay’s company in Laos.

In 2013, the United States offered a reward of $1 million for anyone who helped dismantle Mr. Vixay’s wildlife trafficking network.

He remains a free man.

Vatanarak Suranartyuth, the director of Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network — an effort by Southeast Asian governments to crack down on wildlife crime — said coordination has greatly improved among countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. But dealing with Laos, he said, is laborious and involves obtaining permission from senior officials for the most basic of inquiries.

Yet in a region where officials are often reluctant to directly criticize their neighbors, Mr. Vatanarak was diplomatic in his criticism.

“We would like Laos to be more active in tackling the issue of environmental protection,” he said.

Of the three Laos-bound shipments intercepted recently by the Thai authorities, a seizure on April 18 was the largest: More than 700 tusks were found in a container of beans from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Thai authorities estimated the cache had a value of $6 million.

The Thai authorities had been tipped off about the shipment by foreign intelligence sources as part of Cobra III, a joint law enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species.

The contents of the shipment raised red flags, said Chamroen Photiyod, the deputy director general of Thailand’s customs authority.

“This cargo was particularly suspicious because it was declared as beans,” Mr. Chamroen said. “From what we know, Laos has plenty of beans. We didn’t understand why they would have to import beans from Congo. It sounded unlikely.”

X-rays showed what appeared to be many tusks among the beans.

Thailand had previously been unable to open shipments transiting through the country without a warrant and permission from the destination country, Mr. Chamroen said. This allowed many suspicious packages to slip through, he said. But a law passed on March 4 by Thailand’s military government gave officials greater scope.

Thailand’s customs department contacted the Laotian Embassy out of “diplomatic etiquette,” Mr. Chamroen said. But the embassy was adamant that the packages be shipped to Laos without delay.

“They were really upset with us,” Mr. Chamroen said. “They did not want to give us permission to open it.”

Thai officials ignored their pleas and opened the packages anyway, discovering nearly 9,000 pounds of elephant tusks.

When Laotian officials were confronted with the discovery, they said they would investigate.

The repressive government of Laos keeps close tabs on its citizens through domestic intelligence agencies like the Ministry of Public Security. But the investigation into the ivory seizures has gone nowhere.

Mr. Phonesavanh, the deputy director of the wildlife inspection division, said the Laotian authorities went to the address listed on the largest shipment and found only “rural people” who told them they had “no idea” about the ivory.

“There’s no evidence at all,” he said. “We cannot arrest anyone. We have no clues.”