By Karl Ammann
During a recent documentary film shoot with a team from Spiegel TV in Germany we investigated aspects of tiger farming in Thailand and Laos before I traveled on to China and Myanmar. There I looked into not only aspects of tiger bone consumption and the trade in tiger derivatives but also the commerce involving live animals. I presented some of the findings to members of the diplomatic community in Vientiane, Laos PDR who had expressed interest in our inquiries, especially in the context of the U.S. State Department announcement of a reward concerning Vixay Keosavang and his continued involvement in the wildlife and lion/tiger bone trade which we documented during an earlier visit.
Information we received from a key tiger farm owner that they were now shipping live tigers on Laotian PDR Army helicopters (such as the one in the photo) to various locations was met with skepticism. So I checked out one of the locations mentioned: the new casino set up in the special economic zone on the Lao PDR side of the Golden Triangle. The animal keeper there showed me eight remaining tigers from the shipment mentioned by the tiger farm owners in the south. He informed me that except for one female (kept in a small breeding cage with a male) they had received only males. As a result they have now ordered eight more females which was supposed to arrive on March 10, 2014, in the same way the first group arrived. Presumably by Laotian Army helicopter!
It should be relatively easy to check out this information, which in turn would help with establishing credibility concerning some of the other key points concerning tiger trafficking which I will outline below. All this would be a complete and flagrant breach of the CITES “Tiger and other Asian Big Cat” provisions and presumably also national laws owing to the various promises made by the Tiger Range Countries under initiatives such as the Global Tiber Recovery Program.
CITES Decision 14.69 from the 14th Conference of the Parties to CITES in 2007 states that: All tigers and other Asian big cat species are included in CITES Appendix I which bans their international trade for commercial purposes. In addition, the CITES Secretariat has gone on record stating that it considers ‘trade’ for the purposes of Decision 14.69 as including domestic trade. This is not least because domestic trade has been shown to undermine the international ban, stimulate poaching and significantly threaten the continued existence of tigers in the wild.
I asked my local translator to ask some questions and he got confirmation that a shipment of tigers arrived at an army base about six months ago. I believe I have also seen some of these tigers at the Kunming Wild Animal Park where I filmed some very scared new arrivals refusing to leave their night housing. This was very different to the behavior of a large number of tigers in a wide range of other enclosures. Interestingly one of the former tiger keepers/trainers of this facility is now in charge of the new set up at the Kings Roman Casino in Lao PDR.
As on many other fronts (e.g. rhino horn, lion bones, primates, python skins etc.) Lao PDR seems to be one of the region’s worst offenders when it comes to compliance with the CITES convention. Based on the information collected on this trip, my conclusion is that Lao PDR is in the process of becoming even more established as a place where anything goes, with wide open borders as far as trafficking wildlife into next door China and Vietnam.
The tiger farming, which is clearly meant to be highly restricted — not least because the introduction of captive bred tigers into the wild has never been successfully achieved — looks like it is now really taking off. It is already completely out of the control of any national authorities or CITES officials in terms of animals being registered, etc.
Here are some of our key findings:
1. There are clear links between the Tiger Kingdom operations in Thailand (Phuket and Chiang Mai), their Ubon Ratchathani holding facility, and the large farm set up on the other side of the Mekong in Lao PDR.
2. Ownership of these facilities appear to be closely interlinked and involves high-powered individuals on the Thai side with the manager of the Ubon Ratchathani facility being an adviser to the Thakhek farm in Laos which he visits regularly.
3. The two Tiger Kingdoms in Thailand are breeding jointly about 100 tigers a year for their tourist petting operations. Neither were on the list of the four establishments granted breeding licenses reported by to CITES by Thailand in late 2009. The set up in Chiang Mai has been breeding about 40 offspring a year (all pulled from the mother at birth in the kind of intensive breeding operations that CITES Decision 14.69 was passed to put an end to). This has been the case for about five years by now.
4. There have been several seizures of tigers en route to Lao PDR on the Thai side of the Mekong.
5. Visiting the zoo in Ubon Ratchathani, we found about 50 adult tigers in a facility not geared to tourists or local visitors. The entry fee is very low. This is the very opposite of what is happening in Chiang Mai and Phuket and what will be the case at another such facility now planned for outside Bangkok. Tourist petting establishments earn tens of thousands of dollars a day in Phuket and Chiang Mai. Ubon Ratchathani appears to be a holding and laundering facility close to the Mekong and Lao PDR’s border.
6. There appears to be limited breeding at the Ubon Ratchathani facility and we filmed only one very small (again, pulled from its mother at birth) baby in an incubator.
7. Our local investigator from Lao PDR asked on hidden camera about purchasing tigers for a new facility at Boten (another casino town in a special zone at the Lao PDR / China border). He was given prices for the adults and the cubs and told where to take them across the Mekong River.
He also received confirmation that they had a close link with the Thakhek Tiger farm and clearly surplus tigers were regularly shipped from Thailand into Lao PDR.
8. While driving from Pakse in Lao PDR to Thakhek our interpreter talked to various boat operators and met two who offered to traffic tigers across the Mekong River. They said they had done so before and confirmed that it would not be a problem. One then regularly called during the following days to determine when such a transfer would need to be arranged.
9. We visited the Thakhek tiger farm for a second time (the first time last October), this time accompanied by a Chinese national to play the potential buyer. One of the owners was present, a Vietnamese of Chinese origin, and he was very suspicious about the motives for the visit and needed a lot of convincing (recorded on hidden camera).
10. The owner made the point that a Vietnamese media team had managed to get into the facility some three years earlier which had resulted in lots of media attention, including Internet exposure which the Laotian authorities had not liked. As a result he had to visit Vientiane and part with a U.S.$ 1 million bribe to be able to continue.
11. When, prior to the October trip, we tried to recruit the same Vietnamese journalists who got into this tiger farm in 2010 (to assist with setting up another visit) we got the following response by e-mail: “4. We think it will take 1 month that’s also a problem for our office. It will be a dangerous trip (even life-threatening), is there any security plan?”
12. The Thakhek tiger farm currently has about 400 tigers and a wide range of other wildlife including bears, clouded leopards and pangolins that seem to be in a holding set-up. The tiger section is presently being expanded to hold 800 tigers!
13. All the feed (chicken bone and feet) is being shipped to the Thakhek tiger farm from Thailand and the rations are about 2 kgs (4.4 pounds) per tiger per day.
14. On a previous visit, a few years earlier, a disease outbreak (most likely bird flu) had been given as a reason to our local investigator for not allowing outsiders inside the facility, and even staff having had to be quarantined. When he raised this issue with the management this time around they informed him this had been overcome and each tiger now received an antibiotic injection once a week. We were told that they could not provide the details of what was injected, and that we had to talk to the manager from Ubon Ratchathani (the name was provided), who was a regular visitor and who dealt with these issues.
15. On the earlier visit we had been informed about the option of buying a live tiger for meat, which would cost 8,000 baht per kg (up from 6,500 Baht in October 2013). We were informed there would be a discount of some 7-8 kg for intestines but the average 200-kg tiger would cost around U.S. $50,000. The chosen tiger would then be executed using electric shocks. The customer would determine if he wanted to sell any part back to the farm (claws, skin teeth, etc.) and how he wanted to take the rest, with bones being the key component for most clients. Chinese buyers, we were informed, mostly preferred males because of the extra value of the tiger penis. Vietnamese buyers would purchase both male and female tigers.
16. For Vietnamese buyers there was a facility and an expert in Thakhek who could cook down the tiger bones into tiger glue/cake.
17. If a customer was nervous about transporting tiger parts in his car, the local bus company could take consignments as far as Vientiane or Boten without problems, we were told.
18. Our visit this time, however, was not about being a standard customer wanting to buy one tiger. We said we were interested in a consignment of live tigers to set up a facility at Boten. The price quoted was again U.S. $50,000 per cat, but we were told it was now too difficult to ship a consignment of live adult tigers by road. This is why they would require the shipment to be delivered by helicopter which in turn would cost an additional U.S. $30,000. It would be an army helicopter which could take up to 12 sedated tigers in shipping cages. Each cage would cost U.S. $800, and we took pictures of some of them at the Kings Roman set up. There would also be another U.S. $10,000 payable for paperwork and bribes along the way. More....