Cambodian official arrested on wildlife trafficking charges could serve as ‘wake-up call’ for primate trade

Trade continues, as conservationists fear charges won’t spark change, despite Southeast Asia’s ecosystems needing macaques to thrive
<p>An infant long-tailed macaque clings to its mother as she investigates a disturbance in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Cambodia (Photo © Anton L Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)</p>

An infant long-tailed macaque clings to its mother as she investigates a disturbance in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Cambodia (Photo © Anton L Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Editor’s note: The Third Pole was present at the 19th Conference of the Parties to CITES – the global wildlife trade summit – when this story broke. Naturally, the head of the Cambodian delegation to CITES being arrested en route to the meeting on charges of wildlife trafficking caused a stir among attendees for its timely irony. But most importantly, the story highlights how corruption threatens to render ineffective even well-designed policy interventions to protect biodiversity – an issue that reaches far beyond Cambodia. As experts repeatedly emphasised in interviews with The Third Pole, the additional protections agreed at CITES CoP19 – for a host of species from sharks to tropical trees – will only be as effective as their implementation. Read our summary of the summit’s outcomes here.

Masphal Kry was en route to an international meeting about trade regulations for endangered species. As the deputy director of wildlife and biodiversity for Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, this was part of his job.

But in what conservationists call an “ironic tragedy”, Kry was apprehended in New York for smuggling endangered wild monkeys into the United States.

He’s one of eight people charged as part of an “international primate smuggling ring”, which includes the director-general of Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, as well as the owner, general manager and four employees of primate supplier, Vanny Resources and Bio Research, according to the US Department of Justice. (Vanny Resources is based in Hong Kong; its subsidiary Vanny Bio Research is based in Cambodia.)

The alleged smuggling ring is part of a global, billion-dollar wildlife trade industry, which in Cambodia has long been under suspicion of trafficking wild macaques through the legal trade of captive-bred monkeys.

Bribes for ministry officials reached tens of thousands of dollars over the years, a US court document indicated, which also noted a hefty donation from Vanny Bio Research to Cambodia’s ruling political party at the request of the now-indicted director-general.

As the Cambodian government remains tight-lipped, conservationists wonder if the charges will spark change. Today, primatologists fear that ecosystems without macaques could have concerning effects on Southeast Asia’s forests.

single juvenile long-tailed macaque in bushes
A juvenile long-tailed macaque in the forests within Cambodia’s Angkor Archeological Park. (Photo © Anton L Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Long-tailed macaques are considered the most traded primate in the world because of their use in laboratory research, which includes the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. In July, the macaque was uplisted from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ on the Red List of Threatened Species, which listed ‘biological use’ as primary main threat.

“The practice of illegally taking them from their habitat to end up in a lab is something we need to stop,” said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, a US attorney. “Greed should never come before responsible conservation.”

Cambodia’s exports of long-tailed macaques to the US date back to 2000, and the industry has boomed since then. A United Nations-managed trade database has recorded the export of more than 100,000 macaques, listed as ‘live’ or ‘specimens’, from Cambodia to the US in the following two decades.

Bookending this ongoing trade relationship, which began with the first-recorded export of 200 macaque specimens in 2000, is a Maleth Aero flight that had a cargo of more than 700 live long-tailed macaques and departed Phnom Penh the same day the indictments were announced. The final destination – Washington, DC.

“The fact you have government officials involved, surely must raise question marks as to what could be happening in other facilities in Cambodia,” said Sarah Kite, who is co-founder of Action for Primates, a campaign group that monitors primate transportation. “The irony and tragedy for the macaques is that the same person supposed to protect and conserve the species has been indicted for the very opposite – plundering the wild populations.”

Covering the charges

The US Department of Justice announced Kry’s arrest on 16 November, also slapping charges against Cambodia’s Forestry Administration Director General Keo Omaliss.

Indictments were also issued against six Vanny Resources and Bio Research employees: founder and owner James Man Sang Lau, general manager Dickson Lau, deputy general manager Sunny Chan, export manager Raphael Cheung Man, finance officer Sarah Yeung and manager of the Cambodia facilities Hing Ip Chung.

rows of long green-roofed buildings
A view of a primate breeding centre in Cambodia. This photo was shared by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in a press release responding to the arrest and indictments.

Vanny Bio Research has declined several requests to tour its two breeding facilities in Cambodia. The largest one, which spans 40 hectares, is a stone’s throw away from a provincial Forestry Administration building.

Omaliss did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Similar requests from Southeast Asia Globe about past investigations into the government’s role in macaque breeding, forest developments and reforestation initiatives have been ignored.

In a press release, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries wrote that it was “surprised and saddened” to hear about Kry’s arrest, and saw eye to eye with conservationists about the “big irony” that he was apprehended on the way to a United Nations-backed meeting about the protection of endangered species.

The ministry dug its heels in by stating that macaques “are not caught from the wilderness and smuggled out” and that rules and regulations had been respected. The statement ended with a ministry promise to “seek justice for our officials”.

The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Dith Tina did not respond to requests for comment. Thuok Nao, who works with Omaliss at the ministry and the CITES Management Authority of Cambodia, wrote in an email that “the Cambodian government is trying its best to respond to this incident”.

red brick fence saying Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
The national headquarters of Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Cambodia capital Phnom Penh (Photos © Anton L Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has issued a diplomatic note to the US embassy in Phnom Penh requesting clarification about the arrest and “for the release of Mr Kry and for him to stay at the Cambodian embassy in Washington”, Nao shared.

“The United States is a leader in the global fight against the illicit trade in wildlife and views the trafficking of protected wildlife as a threat to good governance and rule of law while destabilising our environment,” wrote Stephanie Arzate, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

US Homeland Security Agent Ricky Patel stated in the Department of Justice’s 16 November press release that federal agencies will continue “leveraging all of our authorities to stop people and organisations from violating our laws – regardless of where they reside in the world”.

Long-tailed macaque with metal ring and tag around neck
Long-tailed macaques climbing and hanging from wire fence
Long-tailed macaques in breeding facilities in Cambodia (Photos © Cruelty Free International)

The trade of threatened primates like long-tailed macaques is legal on the condition that requirements by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, are met. The backbone of the convention is a permit system, which confirms that rules regarding animal welfare and breeding requirements, among others, are followed.

Nao, who chairs the Cambodian delegation to the 19th Conference of the Parties – the event Kry was travelling to – stated that a meeting had been arranged with the secretary-general of CITES to discuss the situation. He declined to share more.

An indictment in US law is considered an accusation and defendants are innocent unless proven guilty. The court document, filed in the state of Florida, lists dozens of illegal “overt acts”. If found guilty, defendants would have violated CITES, according to American and Cambodian laws.

The alleged crimes committed include capturing wild macaques from protected areas in Cambodia, falsifying export permits, as well as offering and accepting bribes, according to the court document. If found guilty, the defendants face jail time of up to five years for conspiracy, up to 20 years for smuggling and fines of up to USD 250,000.

“Wild populations of long-tailed macaques, as well as the health and well-being of the American public, are put at risk when these animals are removed from their natural habitat and illegally sold in the United States and elsewhere,” said Edward Grace of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

long-tailed macaque in branches
A wild long-tailed macaque in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Cambodia (Photo © Anton L Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

In 2014, the CITES Management Authority in Cambodia submitted a letter to the CITES Secretariat, which is one of the only public documents with information about the then six breeding facilities in the Kingdom. The letter stated that the capture of wild monkeys was outlawed in 2010, following the issuing of permits for nearly 37,800 macaques to be taken from the wild between 2003 to 2009.

The now-indicted Omaliss, who also serves as the chairman of the CITES Scientific Authority for Terrestrial Forest and Wildlife Resources in Cambodia, said in a 2016 article by Khmer Times (widely considered to be a pro-government news outlet) that no licence for the capture of wild macaques had been approved since 2010.

“There is no legal approval for any person to do any wild captures. If this is going to happen, it will not be good for supporting conservation of primates,” Omaliss said in the 2016 article. “It’s completely illegal.”

A US warrant has been signed for Omaliss’s arrest, as of early November.

long-tailed macaques sitting on mossy slabs of stone
long-tailed macaque sitting on ground and holding food
Wild long-tailed macaques in protected areas across Cambodia (Photos © Anton L Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

The alleged crimes are said to have begun on an “unknown date”, but began at least as early as December 2017 and continued through January 2022.

About USD 80,000 is alleged to have changed hands between Vanny Bio Research and ministry officials, according to the 27-page court document, which accuses Omaliss and Kry of overseeing these transactions, as well as organising the capture and delivery of thousands of wild macaques.

In a specific 2018 example, the court document alleges that Omaliss and Kry agreed to receive cash payments in exchange for taking wild macaques from national parks and protected areas and delivering them to a breeding facility, as well as providing false CITES export permits for 3,000 monkeys.

Each macaque was allegedly worth USD 220 of “tea money”, a colloquialism used in the Kingdom to refer to a bribe. This is a significant sum when compared with Cambodia’s recently raised minimum wage of USD 200 a month for garment workers, a major industry in the Kingdom.

Shuffled among alleged transactions is mention of a 2018 internal accounting document from Vanny Bio Research which reflects a USD 10,000 donation made to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party at the request of Omaliss.

The donation was made a month before the Kingdom’s general elections, which, following the dissolution of a main opposition party in 2017, fell firmly into the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose 37-year rule of Cambodia has made him the longest-serving prime minister in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia’s monkey business

The total global value of the long-tailed macaque trade was worth around USD 1.25 billion from 2010 to 2019, with the primate industry in Cambodia valued at USD 11.3 million in 2017.

Demand for the species skyrocketed after the outbreak of Covid-19. In February, researchers studied global trade statistics and calculated that on average an individual macaque was worth upwards of USD 2,000.

Cambodia dominated the macaque market after the outbreak. The Kingdom made up 78.5% of the global trade in 2020, according to the CITES trade database, which also recorded that three in every five of those monkeys were exported to the US.

Cambodia traded more than 32,300 macaques worldwide in 2020, nearly doubling the amount exported from the Kingdom the year before.

“We saw a complete change in the pattern of the global trade in macaques throughout the pandemic,” said Kite, the co-founder of Action for Primates. “There have always been concerns about the validity of these captive-breeding claims.”

A January report on the status, threats to and conservation of the region’s primates stated that “it is likely that many of the recipient research facilities, which do not prioritise animal welfare, are laundering wild-caught primates through legal trade”.

The indictment also accuses the defendants of illegally purchasing long-tailed macaques from black markets in Cambodia and Thailand to bolster the “purported breeding operations”.

Primatologists worry about the effect of removing macaques from their habitats on such a large scale, and are concerned for Southeast Asia’s ecosystems.

Malene Friis Hansen, director of the Long-Tailed Macaque Project, told the Southeast Asia Globe in an interview in January that the species is ecologically vital.

“Macaques are actually both a predator, a prey and a seed disperser. They are a huge part of the ecosystem,” Hansen said. “We need to consider what species are actually making the world go round, which species are helping to conserve, preserve and regenerate natural areas.”

The Maleth Aero flight landed at Washington Dulles International Airport the day after the indictments were announced with an estimated cargo of more than 700 long-tailed macaques, bound for laboratories in the state of Maryland.

Kite sighed at the irony of it all.

“The fact these indictments involve, not only staff within this one particular company, but also officials within the Cambodian department of forestry should be a wake-up call to governments and the industry,” Kite said. “This should raise alarm bells. We don’t know to what extent any other companies or countries may be involved in this.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network. It was first published by Southeast Asia Globe and is republished here with permission.

This article cannot be republished without permission from Southeast Asia Globe.