The crime family during a centre of Asia’s animal trafficking network

There is a elementary reason because there is always difficulty in Nakhon Phanom. It is a reason because a US atmosphere force came here during a Vietnam war, and a reason because this lifeless and dry city in north-east Thailand now serves as a primary gateway on a tellurian animal trafficking highway. It is all to do with geography.

Nakhon Phanom, race 30,000, sits on a western bank of a Mekong stream and is directly conflicting a shortest track opposite Laos, on a other side of a river, and into Vietnam.

For a US atmosphere force it was a closest associated domain to Hanoi, 380km (236 miles) divided as a bomber flies. For a wildlife traffickers, it is a ideal place for business. To a west, Thailand has some of a best atmosphere and sea connectors in South East Asia; and to a east, opposite a slight frame of Laos, are a markets of Vietnam and China, ripping with a resources of their new economies and inspired for a flesh, skin, nails and skeleton of outlandish wildlife.

The trafficking network

Today a Guardian exposes a crime family that controls this gateway. And we name 3 mainstream Lao companies with absolute domestic connectors as heading brokers in a tellurian trafficking of wildlife. Together with other suppliers they have been trade many tonnes of elephant tusk, rhino horn and lion bone from Africa and truckloads of tigers, turtles, snakes, monkeys and pangolin anteaters from Asia. A estimable volume of their business is illegal. All of these traders acquire a good living; a kingpins are millionaires. All a animals they hoop remove their freedom; roughly all of them also remove their lives. Some class are now confronting annihilation as they are shovelled relentlessly into this sepulchral black market.

The review has been led by a counter-trafficking organisation, Freeland, that is formed in Bangkok and has formerly unprotected pivotal players in this trafficking network. But when law coercion agencies unsuccessful to act, Freeland pushed deeper, operative with a Thai supervision notice team, persuading some of a traffickers to speak to them and stepping turn a hurtful open officials who ensure a network to accumulate comprehension from arguable troops sources in Africa and Asia.

Freeland has common a justification with a Guardian in a wish it will finally jumpstart cross-border troops movement opposite this and other networks. Over a past year, we have followed Freeland’s work, met pivotal informants and a conduct of a notice team, and widened a review into other tools of a supply lines that integrate African brush and Asian timberland to a plush new suburbs of Hanoi and Beijing. Told now in full for a initial time, this is a story of a Asian connection.

The Asian connection

The tip life of Nakhon Phanom revolves around one crime family, a Bachs. Four wildlife traffickers, vocalization independently, name dual of a Bach brothers as a pivotal players who control a bootlegging gateway from Thailand into Laos: Bach Mai, famous to his friends as ‘Boonchai’, 38; and his comparison brother, Bach Van Limh, 45. Although they are active in Thailand, a brothers are creatively Vietnamese and have networks in both countries.



The Bachs’ bottom in Nakhon Phanom. Photograph: Handout

Boonchai runs a operation in Nakhon Phanom with a dozen group and a handful of women. The notice group has seen them assembly African wildlife traders, unloading beef from refrigerated trucks, loading cars with dark compartments and delivering a package to inner police. Bank annals uncover Boonchai’s girlfriend, who acts as assistant for a business, has sent income to Asian wildlife suppliers. Apart from a trade of wildlife by Laos, Thai troops comprehension reports also integrate Boonchai with a importing of drugs from Laos into Thailand.



Boonchai poses with elephant tusks. Photograph: Handout

His comparison brother, Bach Van Limh, runs a Vietnamese end, from a city called Son Tay, that is strategically placed usually inside a limit from Laos and a few hours by highway from Hanoi. He creatively set adult a family business in Nakhon Phanom some 15 years ago yet recently left, allegedly after Thai troops started questioning his impasse in a drugs trade. In Son Tay, according to Vietnamese troops sources, Bach Van Limh is concerned in regulating prostitutes and in bootlegging cars as good as wildlife. He owns a hotel, a cafeteria and legitimate businesses trade bullion and fixation migrant workers.

The Bachs are pivotal players in a bustling market, shopping from whoever will sell to them. Among countless smaller suppliers, 3 Lao companies have been handling for as prolonged as a Bach brothers. One is already scandalous in a animal world: a Xeosavang Trading Company run by Vixay Keosavang, who has been beaten by a churned of policing and publicity, many of it organized by Freeland. But usually as a Bachs, until now, have transient open attention, so too have a other Lao companies. Vinasakhone and Vannaseng are large players – both violation a law and both still enjoying one of a world’s many mortal trades.

All 3 Lao companies non-stop wildlife farms in a early 2000s. They alien tigers bred in captivity, that was authorised so prolonged as they were used for scholarship and education, not for blurb trade. One of them – Vannaseng – illegally alien 2,000 macaque monkeys prisoner and sole by villagers in Cambodia, according to an inner Lao supervision report. All 3 companies went on to mangle general and Lao law.



Leuthai Tiewcharoen aka ‘Fatty’.

At that time, a Bach brothers were already bootlegging wildlife, essentially from a play widely famous as ‘Fatty’, yet his genuine name is Leuthai Tiewcharoen. He ran a plantation in Nonthaburi, usually outward Bangkok, where he stored and bred animals he had illegally smuggled into a nation – tigers from Myanmar and Malaysia as good as bears, snakes and turtles. According to a source who worked during a farm, Fatty was earning 500,000 Thai baht ($14,400) a week murdering these animals in a special massacre area and shipping a carcasses eastwards to be used in food and medicine and as trinket and home decoration.

Sometimes, he sent them opposite a Mekong himself. There was a customary technique that Fatty and other Thai traffickers used, according to a source. The trafficker would go to a remote mark on a Thai side of a river, vigilance to a strike on a Lao side and dump a physique in a hermetic physique bag into a water. The Lao strike would quarrel over, ride a bag behind opposite a river, import it and afterwards make a phone call to send income to a trafficker’s bank account. Some of these consignments would go true into a farms set adult on a Lao side of a Mekong by a 3 large companies. But, according to a source, Fatty also customarily sent carcasses approach to his best bootlegging contacts – a Bach brothers.

The South African link

One day late in 2002 or early in 2003, Fatty came adult with a new scheme. He had met an desirous male called Chumlong Lemonthai, afterwards aged 35, who had been earning a vital offered fruit in a travel marketplace in Bangkok yet who wanted to pierce into a wildlife trade. Chumlong reckoned he knew somebody who could yield rhino horn, creatively sourced from Africa, and skeleton of large cats from a dry forests of executive Thailand. Fatty set adult a assembly between Chumlong and a Bach brothers during his farm, anticipating to acquire a elect as a middleman. At first, it went well. The Bachs brought with them a container containing 40 million baht (about $1m), that tender Chumlong. He concluded to supply a horn and bones. Then it went bad for Fatty: a Bachs cut him out of a deal.



Chumlong Lemonthai. Photograph: Handout

Chumlong went on to flower in a trade and, detached from offered to a Bachs, he done a tie to one of a large Lao companies, Xeosavang, owned by Vixay Keosavang, who was to turn scandalous as a wildlife trafficker. From his bottom in Paksan, western Laos, Keosavang was sucking in animals from all over Asia and illegally churning out physique tools during adult to 10 tonnes a week, investing his distinction in hotels and a ride business. By 2005, Chumlong was carrying difficulty provision his business from a shrinking sources of wildlife in South East Asia, and he motionless to pierce to a biggest intensity source in a world, South Africa.

There, Chumlong quick done friends with Thai sex workers in a bars of Pretoria. Through them, he got to know white South African landowners who bred lions on their ranches. Chumlong consecrated a murdering of hundreds of lions and supervised a hot of their corpses to apart a skeleton from a flesh. He afterwards parceled adult a skeleton in ten-kilo bags – roughly one bag for any passed animal – and shipped them behind to a Bachs and to Keosavang, who variously sole them onwards to Vietnam and China to be boiled and brewed as a inexpensive surrogate for tiger skeleton in health tonics (although there is no justification of a medicinal effect).

This was potentially bootleg underneath a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), that allows blurb trade in lions usually within set limits. The initial dual white farmers he dealt with had a looseness to trade a singular apportion of lion bone, that could be sent to Thailand underneath cover of central Cites paperwork. However, a justification also suggests that some of Chumlong’s lion trade was illegal. Often, he would have a teeth and nails of lions smuggled out of South Africa by Thai sex workers; they were helped by Johannesburg airfield by an airline workman whose temperament is famous to a Guardian. In Bangkok, a hurtful airfield central rhythmical Chumlong’s packages as they arrived in Thailand.

The ‘pseudo’ hunt

With his lion bone business flourishing, Chumlong incited his courtesy to rhino horn, that was in outrageous direct in Vietnam after 2007 when a gossip widespread that a supervision central had used it to heal his cancer. The general sale of rhino products is taboo in Cites, yet Chumlong and other Vietnamese traffickers now started to feat a loophole that authorised hunters in South Africa to take home one set of rhino horns any year as a trophy. They set adult “pseudo” hunts in that a peaceful victim was paid to mount subsequent to a veteran hunter while a rhino was shot passed and had a horn removed. The victim would afterwards have a print taken with a remains and concede their name to be used on a paperwork to take a horn to Asia. There, instead of being displayed as a trophy, it would be sole and belligerent down for normal medicine, nonetheless rhino horn is materially no opposite to fingernails and no some-more effective as medicine.



Lion skeleton are belligerent and used as a tonic in choice medicines preferred by rich Chinese. Photograph: Alamy

Chumlong started to import stooges from Thailand, profitable them 5,000 rand (about $350) for their help. The Bach brothers sponsored some of these pseudo hunts. Paperwork seen by a Guardian shows that during slightest 6 members of their extended family trafficked from Vietnam to South Africa to take part. Then in a neat money-saving manoeuvre, Chumlong replaced Thai prostitutes from his favourite bar in Pretoria, who played a same purpose for him yet a cost of a general atmosphere fare. In this way, Chumlong organized a murdering of dozens of rhinos, earning himself $20,000 a time for their horns, that were shipped behind to Keosavang and a Bachs.

All this was illegal, yet a pseudo hunts gave him a fraudulent insurance of Cites paperwork for their trade as trophies. The justification suggests that Chumlong was also trafficking rhino horn from poachers, whose murdering of rhinos in southern Africa escalated quick from 2008 as a direct from Vietnam and China increased. By this time, Chumlong, a former travel trader, had bought himself dual new houses in Bangkok.

High distinction margins

In Jun 2011, following work by Freeland and a Johannesburg private questioner called Paul O’Sullivan, Chumlong Lemtongthai was arrested by South African income officers in a high-profile operation. They seized his laptop, that contained blurb annals and photographs recording a genocide of hundreds of animals and a despatch to Asia of millions of dollars value of ivory, lion bone, and rhino horn.

During one six-month period, a laptop papers revealed, Chumlong had paid a sum of $1,394,282.40 to a white South African hunter who was sharpened rhinos in his pseudo hunts. The same papers uncover that Chumlong was profitable $6,500 per kg for a horn – a tenth of a end-user cost in China, definition that for that six-month duration his rhino trade alone was potentially value $13.9m to those involved. Invoices also suggested a rate during that he was commissioning a genocide of lions: 327 of them during one two-year period, roughly one each integrate of days, for that he privately perceived some $350,000.

A kingpin falls, yet a trade continues

In Nov 2012, a South African justice jailed Chumlong for 40 years, yet this was reduced to 13 years on appeal. Bach Van Limh attempted to save him, charity $600,000 to a pivotal central in Johannesburg to recover him. Chumlong has given claimed that a central was peaceful to accept a cheat if his income could be paid into an offshore account, yet that this dumbfounded Bach Van Limh, who feared that with no record of a payment, a central would renege on a deal. So Chumlong stayed behind bars.

Keosavang was strike tough by a papers in Chumlong’s laptop. A churned of broadside and vigour from a US supervision finally forced him to step behind in early 2014. At a time, his tumble was distinguished as a branch point; a dismissal of a kingpin from a tellurian machine. But when Freeland followed adult on their investigation, they found that a Asian tie was as bustling as ever.



A rhino lame by poachers for a horn.

They started to concentration on a Bach brothers, who had not been exposed, realising that they were pivotal players. It emerged that Keosavang was not a usually kingpin, that a other dual Lao companies had been operative alongside him for years and were still busy.

The Guardian has reviewed constrained justification that given Keosavang’s decline, Vinasakhone and Vannaseng have been concerned in a bootleg trafficking of hundreds of tonnes of wildlife from Africa as good as Asia, following a same track used by Keosavang and a Bachs, by Laos and into Vietnam and China. During 2014 – a initial year after Keosavang’s depart – a justification suggests that between them they traded $45m of animal physique tools including derivatives from 3 iconic concerned species: tigers, rhinos and elephants.

Other justification alone suggests that both companies have been violation a law on a farms they non-stop in Laos in 2002; that Vinasakhone has been illegally murdering and offered tigers to method for buyers in Vietnam and China and also offered tigers to a scandalous Golden Triangle area on Laos’s borders with Myanmar and Thailand where they are sole as meat, splash and musical skins; and that Vannaseng, on one of a farms, has been breaching Cites by trafficking hundreds of tigers and bears.



Boonchai, Keosavang and Bach Van Limh graphic together on holiday. Photograph: Handout

Keosavang himself is not famous to have been directly concerned in wildlife trafficking given 2014. According to troops sources in a region, he has switched his courtesy to bootlegging cars opposite a limit into Vietnam. But he is positively tighten to a Bachs. Pictures performed by a Guardian uncover him on holiday with Bach Vam Limh and nude to a waist in a inebriated welcome with both brothers.

The notice group have reported that a Bachs continue to trade from their bottom on a categorical travel of Nakhon Phanom in a three-storey retard of flats whose top floors – distinct any other building in a travel – are shielded by confidence bars. The group have photographed churned visits by dual South African lion bone merchants with whom Chumlong was working. They have also identified one of Boonchai’s group as a Thai courier, famous as ‘Jimmy’, who was held during Johannesburg airfield after Chumlong’s detain and convicted of attempting to move undeclared money into a country.



Jay Daoreung Chaimat.

Thai troops have traced a method of payments from a Bachs to other animal dealers including a 40-year-old Thai woman, Jay Daoreung Chaimat, whose “zoo” was raided by Thai troops in 2010. She was married to a troops officer and was pronounced to have other good troops contacts. After a raid, she trafficked to Bangkok and lobbied comparison officials to pouch a officer who had organized it. Following an exploration by a Thai Anti Money Laundering Organisation, Amlo, a justice in May 2014 systematic her to palm over $35.6m as a deduction of crime. This year a method was revoked. Her Facebook page displays a print of her smiling over a basket full of cash.

In a city with few sources of wealth, a notice teams have identified warehouses, unit buildings and a nightclub as Bach properties and videoed a Bachs and their group pushing a swift of new high-end vehicles, some of that have had their looseness plates changed. Members of a notice teams have backgrounds in troops and troops work and trust that some of a network are carrying firearms and regulating worldly anti-surveillance tactics, putting dual or 3 people on their boss’s track to see if he is being followed.

One of a sources in a network says that they have been operative on a new product: a tablet done adult of blood from a cobra churned with powder belligerent from tiger bone. He says they reckon they can sell it for $300 a pill.

The categorical players

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The network

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  • Tomorrow: a domestic crime behind a Asian connection

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