Laos’s biggest breeding facility, near Thakhek, reportedly holds around 400 tigers. Many are bred solely for their parts. The skins are prized as decorations. Farmed-tiger parts mostly move to China through the unruly Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos converge. The region is a hotspot for trade in protected species: the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO based in UK visited the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos, popular with Chinese tourists. [It] found tiger-bone wine, bear-bile pills, pangolin scales and carvings from the beaks of helmeted hornbills openly on sale. Outside the God of Fortune restaurant was a caged bear-cub that could be killed and cooked to order.
Laos also offers a link to the most lucrative of all illegal wildlife enterprises: the trade in rhinoceros horn, which the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated six years ago was worth $8m a year. Since then the number of rhinos slaughtered annually by poachers in Africa has more than tripled (the poaching of Asia’s depleted stock of rhinos is modest). Poachers are sometimes caught; those higher up the chain rarely are. The only high-level trafficker in jail is a Thai, Chumlong Lemtongthai, who is serving a 13-year sentence in South Africa. He was charged in 2011 with bringing Thai prostitutes to South Africa so they could claim they had shot rhinos on legal hunts and were thus entitled under South African law to export horns as trophies. It was the most bizarre of several methods used to get hold of a substance that can fetch up to $70,000 a kilo—almost twice the price of gold.
Mr Chumlong has been linked to a man who has been described as the Pablo Escobar of wildlife-trafficking, Vixay Keosavang, a former soldier in the Lao People’s Army who operates from a walled compound far off the beaten track in the central province of Bolikhamxay. In 2013 the American government offered $1m for information that would help dismantle the network it believes that Mr Vixay heads, which it suspects of trading wild-animal parts across several countries. Mr Vixay has denied wrongdoing.
Some experts believe that the surge in rhino-poaching, which has cut the world’s population by a fifth since 2008, has been driven by a surge in demand in Vietnam. There, rhino-horn shavings are a supposed cure for hangovers; entire horns are given as gifts and displayed as ornaments. Others believe that much of the rhino-horn taken to Vietnam ends up in China.
As their country opened up in recent decades, “some enterprising Vietnamese citizens got residential status in South Africa and very quietly began trading,” says Tom Milliken of Traffic, an NGO. In at least two cases, professional South African hunters have been caught shooting rhino for Vietnamese clients and, in two others, Vietnamese nationals have been arrested trying to smuggle rhino-horns out of South Africa by air. Hunts have been arranged for citizens of the Czech Republic, which has had a large Vietnamese community since the cold war. Since that ruse was discovered, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians have been enlisted as bogus trophy-hunters. “Some Vietnamese residents have bought their own game ranches, so they are now able to buy rhinos at auction and organise sports hunts,” says Mr Milliken.
The international nature of the trade poses big problems for law-enforcement. Documents that would prove decisive in a prosecution for rhino-horn trafficking can sit in a South African office for months awaiting translation, says Mr Milliken; the situation is no better for other animal parts. “None of what we do for drugs do we do for wildlife trafficking,” an international official involved in the fight against organised crime laments. “Extraditions are rare. There are no controlled deliveries. Sophisticated investigative techniques are seldom deployed. We’re not doing any of the things we could be doing to stop it.”
Excerpts from The Trade in Wild Animals: Last Chance to See?, Economist, Apr. 18, 2016, at 49