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  • A customs officer arranges confiscated elephant tusks before a news conference at the Port Authority of Thailand in Bangkok April 20, 2015.

    A customs officer arranges confiscated elephant tusks before a news conference at the Port Authority of Thailand in Bangkok April 20, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Published 27 September 2016

The wildlife trade is illegal but lucrative.  

Bureaucrats in Laos have been implicated in helping wildlife traffickers smuggle endangered species across borders in Southeast Asia, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks paid to the government treasury in 2014 alone, according to an investigation by the Guardian newspaper.

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The office of the Laos prime minister collaborated with three major trafficking organizations to move millions of dollars worth of animal body parts across borders. According to the Guardian, public officials in 2014 taxed the contraband, totaling US$45Million at a rate of 2 percent.

The deals also included quotas for disabling or killing hundreds of tigers and rhinos and more than 16,000 elephants. Trafficking in these animals is forbidden both by national and international law.

One organization, the Xaysavang Trading Company, had formal agreements with the Laos Ministry of Finance allowing the company to smuggle 12 different species worth $US11 million through Laos into Vietnam and China in 2003.

The government treasury was able to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars through agreements where the company's head, Vixay Keosavang, was taxed on the smuggling transactions. Keosavang was able to carry out his operations with impunity for more than a decade until his license to trade wildlife was revoked in 2014. The Guardian investigation could not uncover exactly how far up the government's hierarchy the scheme went, nor did it identify any public officials who personally pocketed any of the tax receipts.

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Vinasakhone Trading and Vannaseng Trading were two other companies that were later given authorization by Lao officials to move animal products through the country. Vinasakhone Trading was allowed to traffic US$16.9 million in 2014, including ivory, lion bone, live snakes, turtles and lizards.

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The investigation claims that Vannaseng Trading was given the all- clear to traffic 90 tons of Ivory, equivalent to more than 13,000 dead elephants, worth around US$22.5 million in 2014.

Laos is a key country for smuggling animal goods from Africa and Asia. The wildlife trade has been estimated to be the fourth most lucrative illegal industry in the world, behind the drug trade, human trafficking and arms smuggling. A U.N. report from May estimated that since 2011, more illegal ivory was seized by authorities than cocaine.

Along with 182 other states, Laos is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, but has done little to stop the ongoing illegal animal trade.

The Lao investigation comes as the 17th CITES conference is taking place in South Africa. South African and Lao representatives signed a memorandum of understanding to help promote cooperation in the fight against wildlife crimes.

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