• DAY 300: WHY I NEED TO BE CAREFUL ABOUT CLIVE

    Jul 21 2013
    I can't show a picture of my guide in case he gets seen. So here are some random kids under a goal post

    I can’t show a picture of my guide in case he gets seen. So here are some random kids under a goal post

     

    I’ve extended my stay in Laos by 3 days with fairly catastrophic effects to my UK diary.

    We have had a tip-off that a load of pangolins are coming across the Mekong from Thailand at 6am tomorrow. They will be at a fairly small port on the edge of the jungle, carried over before dawn by groups in long boats and then loaded up into trucks heading to Vietnam. I’m determined to actually SEE some criminal activity.

    But I’m concerned for my guide. I’m going to call him Clive because that is obviously not a Laotian name, and I mustn’t reveal his identity.

    It will be almost impossible for me to show my face without giving the game away so I will likely stay in the car listening to Celine Dion. But its also not wise for my guide to get involved with a group who will likely be involved in other criminal behviours, like human death. I have already dumped a tortoise in a fast flowing river, I don’t want to see my guide drifting upside down along the mekong. At the risk of damaging dramatic reading for you, my dear friend, I have asked him to stay at a safe distance and wave my iphone in the air as if looking for wifi whilst playing a video recording over his shoulder. I won’t let him get close. If we get caught I’ll say he was dacing to Celine Dion – a very dubious event in any case.

    The mekong river where I hope to see some pangolin traders caught in the act

    The mekong river where I hope to see some pangolin traders caught in the act

    Clive likes jungle deer

    Clive is a truly excellent character. He’s been taking me wherever I want to go, is very tolerant to my random pangolin urges and only occasionally asks me for more money (every few hours his rate seems to go up). On the whole we get on great but occasionally I am reminded of the chasms between our cultures. Laos is becoming westernized at a rapid rate, but not THAT quickly

    The other day I found him buying a huge amount of illegal bush meat at the very same market where I rescued the tortoises from. Wild deer face and jungle rat stunk out the boot.

    He supports what I do but I suspect he thinks I am stupid.

    Which of course I may be.

    When I asked why he bought so much illegal meat whilst also  wanting to support conservation efforts and wild animals he said ‘because it is dead already’. This was always my argument for eating steak when I felt guilt as a teenager so I stayed silent.

    I've always loved having crabs. Live crabs at a market

    I’ve always loved having crabs. Live crabs at a market

    Snake for sale!

    Snake for sale!

     

    Sex and money

    ‘Did you have a first love, before your wife?’ Clive asked as we drove a winding track through the jungle.

    ‘I did have some girls that I felt strongly about’

    ‘Did they leave you for other men’

    ‘Yes, one did. She probably chose a man who was more talented and funnier than me’

    ‘I am sure that is true’ (Listen Buddy, Laos humour is different from English humour) ‘But he was also much richer than you I think. You are poor, Martin?’

    ‘Oh, I don’t think it works like that’ I said a little defensively.

    ‘But money makes you more attractive. When a very fat old German woman came here she had sex with a young Laos boy. She was very rich and he was very small.’

    ‘Well, in England if you have a very very fast car every one thinks you are an idiot. Most people do.’

    ‘England is so strange.’

    ‘Sometimes’

    ‘Also, I don’t really like the way of gay people very much but once a very rich gay person paid me something and it was OK.’

    I didn’t ask further about that one. He was a happily married man, although he was quite open about all this.

    Later that evening, when he asked me to a party in a small town full of lots of rich gay people I decided to decline. I had a video to edit after all. Tomorrow the sting at the river crossing. Or maybe not.

    God, I don’t feel I am saving many pangolins. Sorry dear reader. I’m really trying.

     

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  • DAY 296: RESCUING 7 BABY TORTOISES. DO SEVEN RIGHTS CORRECT ONE WRONG??

    Jul 17 2013

    Some better news. After feeling like such a dick-head for dumping a tortoise into a flowing stream my own guilt got me to go to another awful jungle market.

    I know that seven rights don’t correct a single wrong but can I please get some points for saving seven little babies?? Bill Oddie eat your heart out. Actually, don’t, that would be too weird.

    And so awful to see the baby pigs in wicker tubes. I sooo wanted to release one of those but felt that  dropping them into a stream or taking them back to my hotel room would not be productive. So f**king sad …

     

    These little piggies went to market. Baby pigs being sold for food. Sorry for poor picture quality, taken somewhat undercover.

    These little piggies went to market. Baby pigs being sold for food. Sorry for poor picture quality, taken somewhat undercover.

    IMG_6685

    Don’t even ask. Some sort of wild jungle cat…or domestic cat???

    IMG_6404 IMG_6410

    Living lizard-reptile-beast thing waiting to be bought.

    Living lizard-reptile-beast thing waiting to be bought.

    Feeling a bit happier now that I've rescued something properly. Or have I...god only knows.

    Feeling a bit happier now that I’ve rescued something properly. Or have I…god only knows.

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  • DAY 294: RELEASING WILD ANIMALS FROM JUNGLE MARKET GOES A LITTLE WRONG

    Jul 14 2013

     After releasing a number of animals from a market in the middle of the jungle I’m wracked with guilt as to what happened to the poor turtle I put in the stream – or was it a tortoise??  I am such an idiot

    Is this a lesson in how we should be more compassionate…or simply how good intentions can be a dangerous thing?

    I once asked an expert for a very quick lesson in first aid in case I was in an emergency. He refused to give it to me on the basis that a little knowledge may be worse than no knowledge. It would be like arriving at a car crash with a box of sticking plaster and some string. Now I think I know what he meant…

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  • DAY 293: DEEP IN THE JUNGLE, BUT WHERE ARE THE PANGOS?

    Jul 13 2013

    A jungle or a desert?

    Laos is a wild and beautiful place, covered in so much lush forest that you can virtually drink the green.

    And yet this place has been plundered of so many creatures, including of course the poor pangolin, that it risks becoming a shadow of what it once was. 

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  • DAY 289: SPOTTING MY FIRST ILLEGAL PANGOLIN TRADE TRUCK

    Jul 10 2013

     

    In one short day I have managed to  get some information about the whereabouts of the HQ of asia’s supposed overlord of wildlife trafficking as well as find myself a local guide to take me on my journey into deepest Laos.

    When a country is more – how do you say – basic…no that’s wrong, perhaps ‘lawless’, it means its easier to get certain things done . I imagine if a Laotian person came to London and tried to find a guide to help track the movement of cattle from farms it would take a little longer than I did to find the equivalent person out here to help me track the illegal wildlife trade.

    The manager of my hotel seemed massively dodgy – I have nothing to back this up other than the appearance of his squint and the way he chewed his toothpick –  but sure enough he found me a guide in about ten minutes.

    ‘Er, do you like animals?’ was my opening question in the short interview I gave my guide before deciding if I coudl trust him with the  rather challenging journey we had ahead.

    ‘Oh yes, and there is a big problem in Laos with the wildlife’

    That was it. This guy would have to do. I hinted at what we were about to do and asked if he was comfortable with it and explained that I dind’t want him taking any unnecessary risks. But he seemed genuinely concerned about the wildlife issue in Laos. I will not give him name or show any pictures of him other than tell you his name is Barry and he is 8 foot tall. In other words, neither of those things is true.

    Me and Barry found ourselves at the cross roads of two roads where various international traffic routes through Laos meet en route to China.

    At the very end of the day, just as I had packed my bag we also saw a truck full of dogs heading to the border.

    ‘Many many dogs come from Thailand to go to be eaten in Vietnam. Very, very common’  said Barry, matter of factly.

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  • DAY 287: PANGOLIN EXPERT SENDS ME OUT ALONG MEKONG RIVER TO TRACK WILDLIFE TRADE

    Jul 08 2013

    The picture of Vixay Keosavang, reportedly one of Asia's most prolific wildlife traders, living in Laos currently.

     

    (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's deputy who was busted in South Africa and given 40 years for attempting to smuggle rhino horn back to Laos. Photo credit: killingforprofit.com, Julian Rademeyer

    Vixay’s deputy was busted in South Africa and given 40 years for attempting to smuggle rhino horn back to Laos. Photo credit: killingforprofit.com, Julian Rademeyer

    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.

    Trucks heading along the border to Vietnam apparently carrying living pangolins rolled into small blue bags. A kilo of living pangolin fetches a few hundred dollars on the market.

    Trucks heading along the border to Vietnam apparently carrying living pangolins rolled into small blue bags. A kilo of living pangolin fetches a few hundred dollars on the market

     

    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?’

    My route to try and track the illegal trade in pangolins coming across the river from Thailand and onto Vietnam. On the way I might stumble across the HQ of reportedly asia's biggest wildlife trafficker, who knows.

    My route to try and track the illegal trade in pangolins coming across the river from Thailand and onto Vietnam. On the way I might stumble across the HQ of reportedly asia’s biggest wildlife trafficker, who knows.

    A so called 'Wildlife Farm' openly selling its animals. These are used to 'launder' wild animals which are poached from the jungle and then sold on as if they have been bred in captivity. It is legal to sell animals that have been bred in captivity.

    A so called ‘Wildlife Farm’ openly selling its animals. These are used to ‘launder’ wild animals which are poached from the jungle and then sold on as if they have been bred in captivity. It is legal to sell animals that have been bred in captivity.

    ‘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

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  • DAY 284: BUS JOURNEY FROM HELL INTO LAOS. NOW I KNOW WHAT PANGOLINS FEEL LIKE.

    Jul 06 2013
    The route the bus takes in black, the route the pangolins take in red. Would i see them out of the window??

    The route the bus takes in black, the route the pangolins take in red. Would i see them out of the window??

    Why have I taken a 26 hour bus journey across the hills of Vietnam into Laos for $26? Do I think I am 26 again?

    I’m off to try and track the illegal trade in Laos, which, apparently, is much more visible over there than in the more developed Vietnam.

    Coincidentally the route that the bus takes is actually the route, back to front, that the illegal trade takes through Laos, into Vietnam and up to China. I’ll look out my vomit strewn window….

    I used to enjoy folding myself into a metal seat, eating my knees, whilst the woman next to me tended to her chickens – it was an adventure. But now that I’m accustomed to duvets and complaining in restaurants it’s not so easy to fold so small. Tolerance dwindles with age.

    The bus was a second hand Korean military bus which sat on the side of the road spewing fumes. A very small Vietnam man shouted at us and threw our bags into the hold. He was so aggressive and one young backpacker so small with such a big bag on her back that he didn’t realize he picked her up as well as the bag and tried to throw here into the hold too.

     

    Rape on the bus???

    I overheard one traveller say this was ‘the death bus’ as each journey someone was sure to get violently ill. Recently the bus had secretly gassed all the travellers through the A/C and bandits had come on and stolen all money or raped the passengers who later woke up with blurry memories and no pants or money.

    I tied myself up in a blanket ready for an adventure and fell asleep.

    We broke down twice, once because a policeman said we should have working lights in pitch of night and once when fumes started coming into the cabin so that we couldn’t breathe. I anticipated passing out and imminent rape but turned out it was a legitimate poisoning. The driver got out, saw that the electrics had gone, found some string on the floor and repaired the engine with it. When I stood and looked in horror he hit me with a flipflop and screamed to get me back in my seat.

    I didn’t sleep too much more and ended up speaking to an elderly Vietnamese man next to me who spoke English with a Russian accent and loved Dostoyevsky and claimed to be a dissident. He had grown up in communist Vietnam and had been sent to Moscow to learn Russian as a teenager and then returned to discover he hated communism. Nevertheless he retained a thick moustache and a wild husky laugh that he must have picked up from siberia.  He said he was being targeted by officials as he wrote a blog about things the government did wrong. I told him about my blog saying that the vietnamese were wankers about the wildlife.

    We arrived bleary eyed in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, at 3pm a few hours before I had to meet my pangolin contact to get some essential info on the trade and where I should go next. I have just heard that the guide who was due to take me out into the jungle has gone missing for a few months – he knew about the monkey trade. This doesn’t bode well.

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  • DAY 283: I’M OFF TO LAOS TO GET CLOSER TO PANGOLINS

    Jul 05 2013
    Laos, my new destination - home to many pangolin. Or at least, once it was....

    Laos, my new destination – home to many pangolin. Or at least, once it was….

    Finally a reply to the 523 email/phone calls I’ve made around the world. An expert group has given me a tip-off that I must cross the border to Laos if I want to get closer to the elusive Pangolin trade – more info to follow shortly.

    I will leave immediately without knowing who they are or where I am to go except for meeting someone in the capital – Vientiane, tomorrow.

    Laos is one of the most lawless and vibrant areas for wildife trade and a key point on the route for Pangolins travelling from Thailand and elsewhere to China over land. If I am going to see anything I will see it there. 

     

    laos-location-map

    Laos lies to the west of Vietnam, tucked above Cambodia and Thailand and beneath Burma and China.  It isn’t  as famous as its neigbours, geographically, culturally or politically, althought it had far more bombs dropped on it per sq mile during the US war (actually more than any country in the world). I went a long time ago – dense jungles, lush green landscapes, vast rivers, kind people – I was surprised it wasn’t a more desired location. But it was also very very poor. Rich in nature, poor in pocket: a perfect combination for a painfully successful wildlife trade. I doubt there are any pangolins left. But it is beautiful, that is for sure.

    Beautiful but ravaged - the wilds of Laos are becoming emptier and emptier because of the wildlife trade.

    Beautiful but ravaged – the wilds of Laos are becoming emptier and emptier because of the wildlife trade.

     

    I have only a few days left so I am not sure what I will see – whether it be hunters, living pangolins, international trade trucks, whispering criminals, empty forests…..or nothing at all. But I have one chance….

    to save money I am taking the 25 hour bus journey over the mountains for $25. Luxury, here I come.

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