DAY 287: PANGOLIN EXPERT SENDS ME OUT ALONG MEKONG RIVER TO TRACK WILDLIFE TRADE
(Above: The picture of Vixay Keosavang, reportedly one of Asia’s most prolific wildlife traders, currently living in Laos.)
‘I have a wife from Laos, my kids live here’ says the man sitting opposite me in the small café in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, who prefers to remain nameless ‘ its not worth me having any trouble. You’ll have to go on your own, Martin’
We are sheltering in the freezing air conditioning whilst the 36 degree heat beats down outside. He is an expert in the wildlife trade who wants to help the terrible pangolin situation but is aware of the dangers.
‘To be honest Martin, I thought we had the perfect guy to accompany you, he could have shown you all the secret hideouts – the hunters, traders, the hotspots. But I texted him yesterday and he didn’t reply. Today I heard he’s been out of contact for three months. He normally checks in every week. We are worried. He was working on the illegal primate trade. All I can say is, if you want to look into the pangolin trade you’ll be going against some– how shall I put it – influential people. I won’t be able to come with you. The worst that can happen to you is deportation. The worst that can happen to any local you use to show you around… well…it’s much worse’
A few months ago, on March 4th 2012, the Herald Tribune in the US ran a front page article alongside a photo of a man called Vixay Keosavang that read ‘He is the single largest known illegal wildlife trafficker in Asia’. The quote was from the founder of the anti-smuggling group, Freeland, Steve Galster, who, along with various other agencies has been tracking this single man who appears to be the Osama Bin Laden of the Asian illegal wildlife trade. It is well known that although the illegal wildlife trade is smaller than the arms and drugs trade it is closely connected to both – people often ‘practice’ on wildlife before moving up to drugs although the rewards are now so high for animal parts that they might as well stay with wildlife. The punishments are far less severe.
Vixay Keosavang reportedly lives in a small town in the heart of Laos where he runs an apparently untouchable business of trafficking wildlife that includes ivory imports and exports as well as pangolin smuggling. His right hand man was recently caught in South Africa trying to ship a load of rhino horn back to the HQ and received a forty year sentence. But Vixay has so far remained elusive and will continue to do so as long as he remains in Laos: he has too many friends in high places and those friends enjoy his money too much. Laos is a deeply corrupt country that is also poor. This makes it a great place to smuggle wildlife.
‘What would you like to do in Laos, Martin?’ says my contact.
‘I don’t know. Visit Vixay Keosavang’s compound perhaps? Meet some smugglers? Witness the trade first hand. I want to get the story out. ’
I feel like a fool but I mean what I say.
My contact, to my surprise, takes me seriously. “Look …what I suggest is that you head East. Keep a look out on highway 13. Traffic comes across the river Mekong from Thailand and goes up to Vietnam on that road. Sit and wait.’
He leans over the table and shows me a photo. ‘We saw this on that road – in plain sight, two pick up trucks stuffed full of pangolins’
‘Can you be sure they are pangolins in there?’
He is certain. Each blue ball contained a living pangolin rolled up.
Then he shows me a photo that he is unable to allow me to publish here. It pictures a large sheet of paper with rows and rows of handwritten figures – some sort of ledger that appears to track all the border crossings for one particular company between Vietnam and Laos, on highway 8, the crossing that my bus just spluttered over.
‘See here, it lists all the pangolin shipments across the border. Two or three a week. One shipment shows 495 pngolin totally over $28,000 which amounted in only $300 tax being paid. A lot more money is paid under the table. This just makes the transfer official’
‘And why is it official if it is illegal?’
‘Oh the government know all about it. They want the tax. Of course the government pretend it is legal by saying that the wild aniamls have been farmed, which means legally bred in captivity. But everyone knows you can’t do that with wild animals like pangolins..they die in farms. So what happens is that the traders collect the wildlife from poachers and then bring it to their compound and say that they animals have been born there. These farms even openly advertise their products. It’s incredibly corrupt. If you want to find out where Vixay’s compound is I woudl recommend speaking to Julian Rademeyer from South Africa who recently wrote a book about the rhino trade ‘Killing for Profit’, apparently he visited the place.’
My flight back to the UK is in a few days. I have to set off tomorrow morning if I am going to see anything. Travelling into Laos can take days on bad roads. That means I have only tonight to get through to Julian Rademeyer in South Africa as well as find myself a non-corrupt guide who will be prepared to take me out to look for the illegal trade.
Get moving, Martin