Of Maasai Songs and Tsavo Rain:
The Fight Against Wildlife Crime (Part 1)
For Mr. Greg French, my high school teacher and first mentor
“Animals cannot speak, but can you and I not speak for them and represent them? Let us all feel their silent cry of agony and let us all help that cry to be heard in the world.”
– Rukmini Devi Arundale
Part I: A Beginning, Global Wildlife Crime and CITES
* There are graphic images placed at the bottom of this post
I admit, I did not see this coming – any of it. There are times where I would questioned myself as to how the hell I found myself deep in the African bush. My love and passion for paleontology sprouted a curiosity for nature and that same passion grew into an adoration for the natural world. Nature is almost like magic, manifesting mystery and wonder. I was that kid who grew up watching the nature documentary “The Trials of Life: A Natural History of Behavior” which was written and presented by David Attenborough himself. I must start from the beginning about how I suddenly found myself knee deep into this ongoing conflict. I can keep going on and on about my admiration for the world’s biodiversity but I’m here for the sole purpose of discussing a crucial issue – the illicit trade and decimation that is global wildlife crime. Global wildlife crime is a vast, critical issue that I unfortunately will not be able to cover every aspect over these write-ups. What I will offer is my experience combating this issue, how I grew to learn how dire this illicit trade is and its negative impact to our wildlife. My interests in the ivory trade started when I read the book “The UN’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime” by John M. Sellar, the world’s leading authority on wildlife crime (now retired). The amount of information in that book alone created a foundation for my knowledge on wildlife crime and with that, I began to pick up other books. Books led to documentaries and documentaries led to numerous emails which in turn eventually became phone calls and door knocks. Years later, I found myself walking on the vast savanna of Tsavo in Kenya alongside rangers of the KWS (Kenyan Wildlife Service).
Wildlife crime is an illegal trade that generates 23 billion dollars per year under the global criminal network. It fuels and feeds off issues such as the GWOT (Global War on Terror), drug war, human trafficking, conflict diamonds (Blood Diamonds) and the list continues with poverty and human-wildlife conflict also tying in. Wildlife crime does not discriminate animal age nor humans. Skirmishes in central Africa and genocide is fueled from wildlife crime due to the financial investment or trade for weapons. Wildlife crime has always been a supply and demand issue – the lower the supply, the higher the demand. Organized crime and corrupted government officials want the extinction of wildlife because that will increase the money value of the wildlife ‘product’. These ‘products’ consist of rhino horn, pangolin scales, giraffe tails, tiger pelts and so much more. For example, higher ivory prices lead to higher poaching incentives which becomes a domino effect and ultimately the greater number of elephants being killed. The global price of ivory increased tenfold since its 1989 trade ban by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Before I can proceed, we need to understand what CITES is and its role in this mess.
Many species of fauna and flora are dying out as their habitats are consumed for human needs or become uninhabitable because of climatic change. Others are disappearing because of our appetite for wild meat, animal skins, exotic pets or dubious (traditional) medicinal cures. CITES a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. With 183 countries under CITES, Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Every two to three years, the CITES Conference of Parties considers how threatened species are progressing, and sets the rules on their international trade. This treaty; however, is absolutely flawed and reeks of corruption within political party members. I, myself have attended this conference in the past.
Part II: Ivory, Horn and Blood
“Every ivory ornament, bracelet, pendant or trinket represents a slaughtered elephant and some also a slaughtered ranger. For the elephants and those who try to save them this World Elephant Day, is just a day like any other day. I wonder how many elephants will be killed, how many tiny calves will lose their mothers? How many rangers will be murdered?”
– Dr. Jane Goodall, Founder of Jane Goodall Institute
There are two species of elephants with a single African sub-species: the African savanna (bush) elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian elephant. Savanna elephants are larger than forest elephants, and their tusks curve outwards. The African savanna elephant is the largest living terrestrial species and was widely distributed across 37 African countries. The African forest elephant are native to forests in West Africa and the Congo Basin. The Asian elephant is distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The Asian elephant is smaller than the African savanna elephant and females lack tusks while only some males have large, prominent tusks.
So how many elephants are we losing? Elephant ivory makes up approx. 5 billion of the approx. 23 billion generated from the illegal wildlife trader per year. It is estimated that an elephant is killed every 15 minutes and an approx. 20,000 African elephants are being slaughtered each year – an approx. 55 a day. In 1930, there was an approx. 10 million wild African elephants in the wild. As of last year, there is now approx. 415,000 and this is shared between the two sub-species of African elephants – the Savanna (or bush) elephant and the Forest elephant. As of right now, data predicts the extinction of the African forest elephants in less than a decade (as of 2019).
Rhinos is another difficult matter entirely. There are five species of rhino: the White rhino, the Black rhino, the Sumatran rhino, the Indian rhino and the Javan rhino. For five years, African rhinos have been poached at a rate of three per day. Overall, two-thirds of the world’s five rhino species could be lost in our lifetime. Of the five species, the Sumatran rhino is the most in peril, with population numbers fewer than 80. As of 2019, the Sumatran rhino is extinct in Malaysia. In 2018, the last male northern white rhino has died while the species has already been declared extinct in the wild since 2001. The most recent thorough and comprehensive studies and census estimates suggest that there are estimated to be roughly 20,700 southern white rhino and 4,885 black rhino in Africa, including their subspecies, but as of 2019 the actual number has dropped drastically. Each year, more than 1,100 rhinos have been killed in Africa.
Rhino horn are made of keratin, the same properties as your fingernails. Rhino horn is used in traditional asian medicine, but increasingly common is its use as a status symbol to display success and wealth. It is also used as an aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant. Elephant ivory falls into this category of power displays and affluence. Elephant ivory carvings are popular in many Asian countries and are used as statues, trinkets and jewelry. A single male elephant’s two tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds, with a pound of ivory fetching as much as $1,750 USD on the black market. Rhino horn fetches up to $61,000 per kilo on the black market – more than the price of gold or cocaine. These animals have strong bonds with their young and are caring parents. Elephants are intelligent – one of the top five most intelligent species on the planet and they are capable of remembering human faces. Rhino calves will stay with their mothers for about two to three years. Most elephant herds consist of females with a matriarch leading the herd. These incredible and beautiful animals are being eradicated off the face of the planet and majority of the world remains ignorant. The chances of our children never seeing a wild rhino or elephant in their lifetime is an immense possibility. The slaughter of these animals ultimately echo upon humanity’s immorality to destroy things so pure.
Part III: In The Shadows of Thanh Hoa
“We have to stop the blood flow. We have to be relentless in our pursuit for justice; in our pursuit for humanity. Nature is the mother of us all, and within all of us is the spirit of an eco warrior. The war on poaching is a war on greed, but what stands to be lost is priceless.”
– Dex Kotze, Strategist for the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos
By this time, I had already worked with numerous NGOs (non-government organizations) and NPs (non-profits) to include international and national wildlife enforcement agencies. I had spent a lot of time in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My time was mostly spent training rangers of the Kenyan Wildlife Service in ecology/field biology skills and marksmanship. I had contracted under the FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and even conducted investigations with combined joint efforts of NGOs like the African Wildlife Foundation, Northern Rangelands Trust and even INTERPOL.
The last time I traveled to Vietnam was when I was five years of age and even then, I didn’t enjoy the family trip. I am part Vietnamese and I was never fond of the culture and morality of the people. Of course, not everyone I met was of immoral conduct, yet many came off as arrogant – narrow-minded even. At least the cuisine wasn’t exotic to me and reminded me of home. Vietnam has certainly changed since the last time I saw it – as the architecture has modernized in most of the major cities such as Hanoi and Thanh Hoa. This write-up isn’t an appreciate post for Vietnamese culture or architect but my hunt for Binh Troung, one of the most notorious Vietnamese mobsters responsible for the illegal smuggling of wildlife contraband.
During this trip, I was undercover along with David who worked for a disclosed. Over the next two weeks, David and I would conduct surveillance and make trips to meet up with gangsters under Binh Troung to ‘purchase’ rhino horn and ivory through Thanh Hoa. Generally, we avoided staying in the city and would make infrequent means of commute into Thanh Hoa. On the outskirts of the city lay the farming fields with villages and bodies of water stretching for miles. Motorcycle was a common means of transportation in the countryside and traffic was horrendous in the city. Good luck trying to walk across the street as intersection lights are still almost non-existent as I forgot the amount of times I almost have been nearly ran over. Things were never the same and we never followed a schedule. David was the only person armed with a pistol and all I had was a belt knife.
My time there was spent half in Thanh Hoa and half in the countryside with one trip south to Ha Tinh. David and I spent majority of our time at local coffee and pastry shops, often watching Binh’s men from across the street. Their lot looked completely ate up with their horrendous style of clothing and constant drinking; that mixed with their obnoxious loud talking and yelling as they gambled. Bing Troung was of short stature at 5’5 with slicked back hair and always wearing a polo with a cigarette stashed behind an ear. His favorite word in Vietnamese was ‘fuck’ and ‘bitch’ as the guy clearly showed his use of intelligent words. I wasn’t sure who was more annoying to deal with – him or his men due to their stupidity.
Our first meeting didn’t last as long as we hoped as it was over lunch and beer (I pretended to drink at times). We met up with two of Binh’s men and one of them surprisingly was a young chipper fellow of sorts named Nam. Nam’s demeanor was extremely happy-go-lucky and he was probably a few years older than I. The other guy, Hau, was constantly bitching and gave off the impression that he didn’t want to be at the meeting and would rather be at the club. David, his contact and myself eased the two gangsters into a Cơm tấm lunch before proceeding with inquiring about rhino horn. Our reason for wanting to purchase? Aphrodisiac powder as a sex stimulant. David and his contact were a married couple and I was a fiancé’ soon to wed a lovely European Caucasian woman in the Netherlands. The story proceeded with how David and his ‘wife’ have been urging me to try aphrodisiac made of rhino horn before proceeding to have sex with my fiancée. I recall Nam laughing as he made a comment about how big I looked and told me how my strength combined with the rhino horn aphrodisiac powder would “make my fiancée come back for more”. Of course, this was all an intent to help motivate me to purchase the product.
During this afternoon, we started to acquire about the aphrodisiac powder and as Nam proceeded to tell us the process, Hau cut him off and went completely into full detail. Hau boasted about how his boss Binh held stashes of rhino horn and other animal parts used in medicine and food. I wasn’t surprised at all when I found out that Hau nor Nam knew absolutely nothing about rhinos – only the ‘usefulness’ of their horns. The way Hau described the rhino; however, was as if they were nothing but cattle to the slaughter and that they will always have a “unlimited stock” of rhino horn. I remember clenching my fist slowly underneath the table but continued to remain cool throughout the story. I was, aftercall, a fiancé who traveled back home to Vietnam from the Netherlands to buy exotic sexual stimulants for my fiancée. The story itself and the acting on our part made it believable. What Nam and Hau didn’t know was that our entire conversation has been recorded from start to finish and David’s contact had a hidden camera in her purse.
The first week consisted of moderate rain for a few days. David and I spent most of the time grubbing out in the city and roaming the countryside. Our next meeting wasn’t until the end of the week where we would meet Binh himself. Now, none of the mobsters looked intimidating at all (small stature physically and generally obese or scrawny) and most of them just wanted to do business while eating, smoking, drinking or singing karaoke. Our scheduled dinner with Binh was on the other side of Thanh Hoa and the sun had barely started to descend. The three of us met up with Binh, Hau, another mobster and an arrogant Vietnamese woman who I presumed was third mobster’s girlfriend. Dinner consisted of Goi cuon (spring rolls), Banh cuon (rice flour pancakes) and Ga nuong (chicken and duck dish). Binh asked me a few questions of the Netherlands and even inquired why I preferred white woman over Vietnamese woman. I pulled out a picture of my ‘fiancée’ (a random European girl I pulled from Google) from my burner phone and showed it to him. He then laughed, made a perverted comment and told me “he can now see why”. I chuckled at the joke but deep down inside, I wanted his head on a pike.
The offer for the aphrodisiac powder was at $350 USD in a small container only holding 500 mg of powder made from crushed rhino horn. After the exchange, David inquired Binh about how he got into distributing rhino horn products and if Binh knew of any other medicines made of more animals. Binh didn’t seem reluctant at all and went into further detail than Hau about how he has been dealing with wildlife products for over 30 years – even giving the police chief aphrodisiac rhino horn powder for his mistress. Corruption at it’s finest. I pretended to nod in pure interest and I asked if he had anymore products made from animals in Africa. The following hour or so, Binh and Chị Sau (the 3rd mobster’s girlfriend) discussed stockpiles of elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger pelts and more in appalling details. The alcohol was quickly settling in for the gangsters and Binh even proceeded to discuss how the work was good money, offering David and I jobs if we ever decided to settle in Thanh Hoa. As time passed, Hau decided to go home and Binh followed suit. Chị Sau spent the next half hour complaining about the weather ruining her favorite shoes and her husband left for karaoke. She left shortly after and the three of us returned to our hotel completely exhausted. The amount of vocal evidence we had on Binh and the gangsters was phenomenal.
A few days later, David and I decided to travel to the outskirts of the country in order to photograph the restaurant where Binh held most of his stock. The motorcycle ride took around an hour (and it was far from comfortable) until we came to the designated town. As David drove around, I quickly snagged photos of the building and a video recording as well. After a few round trips, we parked the bike and decided to grab lunch at a Pho restaurant on the edge of town. We left as the sun fell and returned to Thanh Hoa later in the night. Throughout my time in Vietnam, I did find myself admitting that life in the country was rather quiet and peaceful but knowing the illegal criminal activity that thrived in the cities was unsettling.
The last few days consisted of David and I traveling to Ha Tinh. One of Binh’s cells frequently smuggled and sold elephant ivory in the restaurants and bazaars of Ha Tinh. We had previous ID on four of the gangsters and we knew about their usual whereabouts. David and I spent the morning having iced coffee across the street from the men’s favorite local, casually sitting back as we eyed the building. After some time, two of our targets began to leave the building and as they made their way down the street, we quietly followed from behind. The rain had already started to pick up and it was only a matter of time until David and I were soaked. The following intersection soon became packed with vehicle/foot traffic and we almost lost the two. Quickly catching up a moment later, I separated myself from David and I ran across the street in an attempt to intercept the two gangsters’ path. After a short walk, they stopped at a pastry store and proceeded to have lunch. David and I followed suit at another restaurant across from them. The rain did not cease and we sat there longer than intended due to one of the gangsters leaving his table to talk on the phone. We were to for voice recordings and proceeded with video recording instead. David had suspected that they might be suspicious of international agencies tracking them down so we were particularly careful with this chase.
The streets were soon in ankle deep water and the gangsters suddenly rushed out of their restaurant. We stood up and hastily followed suit until David and I slipped from the wet sidewalk underneath our shoes. One of the cooks had poured excess soup out of a pot which contains oils and mixing with the already wet street became our undoing. Our cover had been potentially blown and we saw one of the gangsters reaching for his phone as he glared at us from across the street. We proceeded to leave the immediate area and one of the gangsters began to follow us. Hoping to lose him, David and I began to cut corners and even splitting up for a block or two before the gangster was no longer in sight. From there, David and I rendezvous back to our rented vehicle and began our escape out of Ha Tinh. On the drive back, we were potentially followed but our suspected vehicle disappeared about half an hour into the drive.
By the time we reached Thanh Hoa’s outskirts, David established contact with his asset and told her to flee the region. David and I ended up leaving the country the next morning due to security risks and our cover potentially blown. We were in no shape or form capable of taking on the Vietnamese mob especially in cities as big as Thanh Hoa or Ha Tinh. Our evidence was substantial and furthermore proved just how deep the black market’s roots were in Vietnam. To this day, I am unsure as to what has happened to Binh Troung but the evidence was brought fourth to INTERPOL and enforcement agencies in the UN. Even if he was captured and arrested, another will quickly fill in his shoes.
The flight home was long and I was furious most of the time. The acting on my end pissed me off but I knew it was for the greater good. Most of those bastards are sick and give absolute zero regards for anything but their social lives and wealth. To the Vietnamese organized crime, wildlife is nothing more but a means to make money. Of course, if there is a demand for a product, there will be a supply. If there is no demand, there will be no product. It is up to us to educate citizens in Vietnam, China and etc. that these animals are being slaughtered to fuel greed and evil. Though many are arrogant, most are just ignorant and blind to the grave situation that is generated from the black market.
When the buying stops, the killing can too.