By David Connett
Vixay Keosavang is a man with a price on his head. The $1m bounty that US Secretary of State John Kerry offered in reward for his downfall was a first.
The bounty, for help in dismantling the “Xaysavang Network”, which Keosavang is said to head, marks a major escalation in the fight against wildlife crime.
Officials in the US describe the network as the world’s most prolific international wildlife trafficking syndicate. They say Keosavang’s organisation, based in Laos, facilitates “the killing of endangered elephants, rhinos and other species for products such as ivory”.
Keosavang’s organisation is said to have “smuggled wildlife and products such as ivory and rhino horns from countries in Africa and Asia through Laos to countries including Vietnam and China” for nearly a decade. US State Department officials say the $1m reward reflects the seriousness with which the crime is now viewed in Washington and elsewhere.
The network came to light in South Africa in 2008 when five men were arrested for offering an undercover police officer tens of thousands of dollars for three rhino horns. A year later, Kenya Wildlife Service and customs officers seized 260kg of elephant ivory and 18kg of rhino horn at Nairobi airport.
The shipment was registered to Xaysavang and bound for Laos. Police then arrested a number of people in connection with the shooting of rhinos. Chumlong Lemongthai, one of Keosavang’s key lieutenants, was later jailed for 40 years, reduced on appeal to 10 years for his part in the smuggling racket. In jail, Lemongthai is said to have given a detailed insight into the Xaysavang Network, prompting Washington to offer the reward.
“The increasing involvement of criminal organisations such as the Xaysavang Network in wildlife trafficking fuels corruption, facilitates conflict, threatens biodiversity and deprives communities of economic opportunity,” said Brooke Darby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.
Keosavang, a former soldier said to be in his 50s, is reported to have close links with the one-time communist nation’s military. Described as the “Pablo Escobar” of wildlife smuggling, Keosavang is said to be protected by his contacts in the Laotian government. It is also said he held a senior position in a state-run firm with interests in construction and international trade. His business card lists him as vice-president of the Laos national swimming and boxing committees and it is claimed he has accompanied a former deputy prime minister of Laos on state visits.
According to documents unearthed by Vietnamese journalists he also has interests in trading hundreds of thousands of live animals, including endangered temple turtles, king cobras and rat snakes. The Network is also said to own a farm in Laos which breeds long-tailed macaques for export to China as laboratory animals.
Freeland, a wildlife NGO, has painstakingly constructed a case against Keosavang. One contract from 2009 obtained by Freeland reveals him agreeing to sell 70,000 snakes, 20,000 turtles and 20,000 monitor lizards to a Vietnamese firm in a deal worth $860,000 (£523,000).
It says he remains “untouchable” in Laos despite detailed evidence being presented to them.
“He is the single largest known illegal wildlife trafficker in Asia,” said Steven Galster, Freeland’s executive director, insists. “He runs an aggressive business, sourcing lucrative wild animals and body parts wherever they are easily obtained. Every country with commercially valuable wildlife should beware.”
The Laos Embassy in Paris declined to comment on Keosavang and his links to Laotion government figures despite repeated requests.