The Kingpin

By Julian Rademeyer

This is the face of international wildlife trafficking.

Vixay Keosavang is one of the most ruthless and active wildlife smugglers operating in Southeast Asia and Africa today.

His activities and those of the Thai nationals he employed to acquire rhino horn, ivory, lion bones, pangolins, reptiles and monkeys for his company, Xaysavang Trading Export-Import, are exposed in detail in Killing for Profit.

A photograph of him, taken from the book, was recently splashed across editions of the International Herald Tribune and New York Times as 2000 delegates from 178 countries gathered in Bangkok for the 16th conference of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Yet he remains utterly untouchable, protected by the Laotian government and beyond the reach of international law enforcement. And CITES appears reluctant or unable to pressure Laos into taking action against him.

Steven Galster, who heads up the Bangkok-based Freeland Foundation, which has been investigating him, describes him as the “Mr Big in Laos”. And the New York Times, in a March 2013 article by journalist Thomas Fuller,  has referred to him as the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking”.  As recently as February 2013, I obtained information that Vixay was continuing to receive shipments of rhino horn, despite the arrest of key figures in the Xaysavang syndicate in South Africa and the imprisonment of his lieutenant, Chumlong Lemtongthai.

In an article published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper in December 2012, I summarised his background:

The Xaysavang Trading Export-Import company, from which the “Xaysavang syndicate” takes its name, is headquartered in a small provincial town on the banks of the Mekong River in central Laos.

For nearly a decade the company has been implicated in widescale international wildlife trafficking and its head, Vixay Keosavang, has been described by investigators based in neighbouring Thailand as the “Mr Big in Laos”. 

Shipments of illegal ivory destined for the company have been intercepted in Nairobi and Bangkok. One document seen by the Mail & Guardian illustrates the scale of the company’s activities. It is a sale agreement signed by Keosavang and a Vietnamese company, Thaison FC, in which he agrees to supply them with 100 000 live animals including endangered yellow-headed temple turtles, king cobras, water monitors and rat snakes.

Investigations by the M&G in Vietnam and Laos show the extent of Keosavang’s political connection in Laos, a one-party communist state that is routinely listed among the world’s most corrupt countries by the corruption watchdog, Transparency International.

A former soldier in the Lao People’s Army, Keosavang is said to maintain ties with the country’s military intelligence structures and has held a senior position in a state-run company with interests in construction and international trade. He has headed the foreign cooperation division in the provincial government of Bolikhamxay province and served as secretary to the provincial chairperson. His business card lists him as vice-president of the Laos national swimming and boxing committees, and the Bolikhamxay chamber of commerce and industry.

In 2004, there were reports that Keosavang accompanied the then Laotian deputy prime minister, Bouasone Bouphavanh, on an official state visit to Vietnam.

Chumlong Lemtongthai, a Thai, is seen as Keosavang’s “lieutenant” and in a number of documents is a listed as a “director” of Xaysavang Trading Export Import. In his plea this week, he claimed he was merely an “agent” for the company.

He said Keosavang had sent him to South Africa to “enquire about the purchasing of lion bones” which are increasingly being sold as an alternative to tiger bones on the medicinal black markets of south-east Asia. Later, he said, he saw advertisement for “the hunting of the big five including rhino” and informed Keosavang who said he would “fund any trade in rhino horn”.

For more on Vixay Keosavang and the activities of the Xaysavang syndicate, get a copy of Killing for Profit.

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