• 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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