Laos overlooked in ivory trade blitz
published : 3 Aug 2015 at 05:23
writer: New York Times
When customs officers at Suvarnabhumi airport recently intercepted huge stashes of ivory stuffed inside shipments of beans and tea leaves, the seizures were described as groundbreaking international police work.
Europol, the international police agency, said the sting operation that led to them was "the biggest ever coordinated international law enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species".
But there was a major omission in the operation, which took place over the past four months and uncovered more than 1,300 elephant tusks: There was no cooperation with and no arrests in the country to which the ivory was being shipped - Laos. In recent years, Laos has become a major transit point for a variety of exotic and endangered animals.
Many countries across the world have enhanced their campaigns against wildlife trafficking syndicates that are draining Asia's jungles and the African savannah of elephants, rhinoceroses and other animals, many of them considered choice foods in parts of Asia. But Laos, run by its secretive and authoritarian communist government, stands out as a bastion of impunity, say those involved in the crackdown.
Criminal gangs take advantage of the weak rule of law in Laos, said Steven Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a counter-trafficking organisation based in Bangkok that works with law enforcement agencies to track down animal smuggling networks around the world.
"It's pretty clear that Vietnamese and Chinese crooks are using Laos as their preferred staging and transit ground these days," he said.
US Republican Party politician Ed Royce, who is chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has sponsored legislation intended to help African nations fight trafficking and to scrutinise the cooperation of governments in anti-trafficking efforts.
"Laos hasn't recorded a single illicit wildlife seizure since officials started keeping records in 1989, making it a smuggler's paradise," he said in an email.
"The Laos government cites its lack of resources as an excuse," he said, "but it's quite clear that officials are profiting from wildlife trafficking."
Phonesavanh Sophakhamphanh, deputy director of the wildlife inspection division under the Laos Department of Forest Inspection, denied that Laotian officials are profiting from trafficking. He maintained the country is an unwitting transit destination.
But law enforcement officials in neighbouring countries and anti-trafficking groups say that very specific information has been handed over to Laos on several occasions and that nothing has been done with it.
Of the three Laos-bound shipments intercepted recently by Thai authorities, a seizure on April 18 was the largest. More than 700 tusks were found in a container of beans from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thai authorities estimated the cache had a value of US$6 million (210 million baht). They had been tipped off about the shipment by foreign intelligence sources as part of Cobra III, a joint law enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species.
The contents of the shipment raised red flags, said Chamroen Photiyod, deputy director-general of the Customs Department.
"This cargo was particularly suspicious because it was declared as beans," Mr Chamroen said. "From what we know, Laos has plenty of beans. We didn't understand why they would have to import beans from Congo. It sounded unlikely."
X-rays showed what appeared to be many tusks among some beans.
Thailand had previously been unable to open shipments transiting through the country without a warrant and permission from the destination country, Mr Chamroen said.
This allowed many suspicious packages to slip through, he said. But a law passed on March 4 by the military government gave officials greater scope.
The Customs Department contacted the Laos Embassy out of "diplomatic etiquette," Mr Chamroen said.
But the embassy was adamant that the packages be shipped to Laos without delay.
"They were really upset with us," Mr Chamroen said. "They did not want to give us permission to open it."
Thai officials ignored their pleas and opened the packages anyway, discovering nearly 4,100kg of elephant tusks.
When Lao officials were confronted with the discovery, they said they would investigate.
Laos keeps close tabs on its citizens through domestic intelligence agencies like the Ministry of Public Security. But the investigation into the ivory seizures has gone nowhere.
Mr Phonesavanh, the deputy director of the wildlife inspection division, said the Lao authorities went to the address listed on the largest shipment and found only "rural people" who told them they had "no idea" about the ivory.
"There's no evidence at all," he said. "We cannot arrest anyone. We have no clues."