US$1-million bounty for wildlife crime syndicate exposed in Killing for Profit

By Julian Rademeyer

The United States government has announced a $1-million reward for information “leading to the dismantling” of a key wildlife crime network exposed in Killing for Profit. It is the first reward of its kind ever offered by the US government.

In a statement issued on 13 November 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Xaysavang network, which is based in Laos, “facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos, and other species for products such as ivory”.

I first wrote about the syndicate in July 2011 and, in a subsequent series of articles and a documentary, detailed their involvement in fraudulently obtaining permits for rhino hunts in South Africa. The trophies were then exported and sold on the black markets of southeast Asia.

Little was publicly known about their activities before then, but there were clues.

The name “Xaysavang Trading Export-Import” had cropped up in a July 2009 press release issued by the Kenya Wildlife Service following the seizure of 280kg of elephant ivory and about 36kg of rhino horn at Jomo Kenyatta international Airport in Kenya. The only other reference I could find at the time was an investigation by a Vietnamese journalist, Hoang Quoc Dung, who had looked at Xaysavang’s role in the trade in macaques between Laos, Vietnam and China.

Horrific scale

But it was in South Africa that the horrific scale of the syndicate’s activities gradually became apparent, as did the role played by the Vixay Keosavang, the ruthless, politically well-connected kingpin at its helm.

Chumlong Lemtongthai, one of Keosavang’s key lieutenants was arrested in South Africa following investigations by the South African Revenue Service and private forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan. Investigators uncovered a treasure-trove of photographs, video footage and documents that provided a remarkable insight into the inner workings of the syndicate. Johnny Olivier, a South African who had helped the syndicate obtain lion bones and rhino horn, also broke his silence.

Lemtongthai was subsequently jailed for 40 years. The sentence was reduced on appeal to 30 years. Another key figure, Punpitak Chunchom, managed to flee South Africa and is still wanted by Interpol. A 35-year-old woman, Loy Chanthawongsa, later emerged as Lemtongthai’s possible replacement. She has apparently travelled frequently to Thailand and Mozambique, speaks Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian and is said to be conversant in Portuguese.

My investigations into the syndicate took me from South Africa to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. In an article which appeared in the Mail & Guardian shortly after the publication of Killing for Profit in November 2012, I summarised the background of the Xaysavang syndicate:

‘Mr Big’

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 connections in Laos, a one-party communist state that is routinely listed among the world’s most corrupt countries by the corruption watchdog, Transparency International.

Government ties

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, 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”.

‘Tons’ of animals slaughtered

The syndicate remains active, handling large shipments of lion bones, ivory, rhino horn, and pangolins. Keosvang is believed to be establishing a tiger farm in Laos. There is  also anecdotal evidence linking the syndicate to the trade in heroin.

Xaysavang’s activities in southeast Asia have also been documented by the Freeland Foundation in a wide-ranging investigation.

“The Xaysavang syndicate has been responsible for the slaughter and illegal trafficking of literally tons and tons of tigers, elephants, rhinos, snakes, turtles, pangolins and other wild creatures for at least 9 to 10 years that we know about,”  Freeland director Steven Galster said in statement issued in response to the reward announcement.

“The network includes corrupt officers and crooks from a variety of countries that have all benefited from this dirty business.  We tried getting national and international agencies to do something about the syndicate until it was clear that the only recourse was public exposure.  We are glad to see the United States Government step in and hope other governments will join the man hunt.”

Links to ‘several major seizures’

The US State Department has described the “Xaysavang Network” as “an international wildlife trafficking syndicate [which] facilitates the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos, pangolins, and other species for products such as ivory and rhino horn”.

The statement also named Vixay and said he “is believed to be the leader of the network”.

“Xaysavang associates smuggle illegally taken wildlife from countries in Africa and Asia into Laos, and then export them to countries such as Vietnam and China. Affiliates are suspected to be active in South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. The Xaysavang Network has been linked to several major seizures of wildlife products.

“The U.S. Department of State is offering a reward of up to $1 million for information that helps dismantle the network. Please contact the Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program (TOCRP) hotline at +856 21 219565 or via email at TOCRP-Xaysavang@state.gov. All communications are strictly confidential.”

A ‘prolific’ wildlife trafficking syndicate

During a press briefing that followed the announcement of the reward, the United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, Brooke Darby, said the US was “looking for information to dismantle this entire network, from the people who order the poaching, to the people who do the poaching, who facilitate the poaching, who pay off border guards, who receive the wildlife products and then distribute them to markets around the world”.

She described the Xaysavang syndicate as “one of the most prolific international wildlife trafficking syndicates in operation connecting supply regions in Africa with demand centres in Asia”.

“[W]e are happy to accept information from wherever it comes from if it helps to dismantle these networks. Decisions to pay a reward are based on the nature of the information and are made by the Secretary of State, based on that information. And I think one of the important things about this particular tool of the rewards program is that it allows us to work with countries around the world to prosecute and to disrupt the finances, to go after money laundering wherever it may take place.”

For more on the Xaysavang syndicate and Vixay Keosavang, read Killing for Profit

Comments are closed.