By Sharon Guynup
In the marbled foyer of a casino inside Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, glistening elephant tusks hang beside an array of ivory carvings, jewelry, and trinkets in glass cabinets.
Nearby, shops in the ornate Chinatown district sell a wide array of luxury wildlife products. Tiger pelts hang on the walls and line shelves next to leopard skins, ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, crocodile handbags, and elaborately carved scarlet beaks of the helmeted hornbill.
It’s all part of an open, brazen trade in endangered wildlife products within the SEZ, documented by an undercover team during a nine-month probe that began last June. Working jointly, the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency and Education for Nature Vietnam observed a free-for-all in sales of endangered species products in the SEZ—an upscale, lawless playground for gamblers and tourists on the banks of the Mekong River.
In Sin City, a new report based on its investigation, the team confirmed rampant wildlife trade in this duty-free vacation spot that includes a casino, hotel, shops, massage parlors, a temple, restaurants, and more. It opened in 2009, built by the Chinese Kings Romans Group for a Chinese clientele and run by mostly Chinese workers. The Laotian government is a 20 percent stakeholder in the multibillion dollar complex.
Many of the animal species sold and eaten in the SEZ are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty that prohibits cross-border trade in rare wildlife.
One storeowner told investigators that the seven tiger skins in his shop had come from Mong La, a Myanmar border town known to funnel wildlife products to China.
Another revealed that his store’s two meticulously stuffed tigers had come from China—to be sold in Laos and, presumably, taken back home to China. His stock of Indonesian hornbills had also come via China, while his African ivory had come from Thailand.
Guests who worked up an appetite at the craps table or at a massage parlor could head for one of two on-site restaurants, where they could choose from a wide menu that offered bear paw soup and other dishes made from exotic wildlife such as tiger, Burmese python, and monitor lizard.
At the Fantasy Garret Restaurant, a captive live pangolin (a scaly anteater-like mammal native to Africa and Asia) was destined for a visitor’s dinner table. So was an Asiatic black bear cub caged behind another eatery.
“We were taken aback at how overt it all was,” said Debbie Banks, the head of EIA’s tiger campaign. “There was no sign of any law enforcement.”
Opium has made the Golden Triangle a smuggling hot spot since the 1970s. The region remains one of the world’s largest producers, where drug kingpins also deal in guns and human trafficking—and often launder the proceeds through casinos. Now Laos has also become a hub for wild animals smuggled in from both Asia and Africa.
During its investigation, the undercover team discovered that an even more disturbing business venture had taken root in the SEZ. Every shop and restaurant was well stocked with expensive tiger bone wine, supposedly brewed locally. It’s made by steeping a tiger skeleton in rice wine.
Investigators found one source in a restaurant where a big cat skeleton floated in a huge glass tank filled with amber liquid. Other vats were rumored to be out of sight
Demand for tiger bone wine and other wildlife products has grown in tandem with rising personal wealth in China and other Asian nations. It’s a deadly commerce fueled by China’s commercial tiger farms, which hold about 6,000 tigers to supply a growing luxury market for skins—displayed as lavish home décor—tiger bone wine, and other tiger products.
During its trip last June, the team visited SEZ’s “zoo,” where bears, tigers, and other animals paced in small cages, and interviewed the head keeper. He told them that he had been hired away from China’s notorious Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park, a huge breeding facility that houses tigers and bears under abysmal conditions. Xiongsen has been the subject of numerous investigations into commercial tiger farming, tiger wine, and black market trade.
The keeper had been brought to Laos, he said, to establish a commercial tiger bone wine manufacturing enterprise that would sell both locally and in China.
He told the investigators that he intended to bring 50 female tigers into the SEZ and breed them until he had 1,000 animals. “It’s very easy, this business can be done,” he said. “It’s a road to wealth.”
Apparently the plan is in motion, because the observers saw six tigers at the zoo in June; by February, there were 35.
The transplant of captive tiger farming to Laos is of great concern, said Banks. The practice only fuels demand, which leads poachers to increasingly target the world’s last wild tigers. Only about 3,000 remain, scattered in small pockets across 11 Asian countries.
“We feel that this export of the Chinese tiger farming model to Laos and elsewhere is clearly out of control,” said Banks, and the practice violates a 2007 decision by parties to CITES that tigers should not be bred for sale of their parts.
“What we see in the Special Economic Zone is the abject failure of Laos and China to implement that decision,” she said, “so we quite boldly suggest that the parties to CITES consider trade suspensions on Laos and China until they’ve fully implemented the CITES resolutions and decisions, including phasing out tiger farms.”
The Laotian government is clearly aware of the growing trade: Images on government websites show high-ranking officials at events in the zone.
When investigators asked the SEZ zookeeper if government permissions were required to house wildlife at the facility, he was shocked.
“No need,” he said. “If you want to kill, you just kill it. You want to catch, you catch. There’s no need for permissions.”