by Dina Fine Maron National Geographic
The day of the arrest, a Cambodian wildlife official at the CITES conference assured National Geographic that illicit monkey trading “doesn’t happen” in his country.
November 17, 2022: Panama City, Panama—U.S. authorities arrested a top Cambodian wildlife official yesterday on his way to a global wildlife trade summit in Panama. He was detained in New York at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Masphal Kry, 46, is alleged to be part of an international primate smuggling ring that has sold thousands of wild long-tailed macaques, an endangered animal, to research facilities in the United States, representing them as captive bred. Allegations against Kry include accepting bribes and personally delivering wild-caught monkeys to a Cambodian facility that passed the animals off as bred in captivity.
Kry is a deputy director at the Cambodian Forestry Administration, within the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Omaliss Keo, 58, the director general of the forestry administration was also indicted, as were six others affiliated with Vanny Resource Holdings—an animal-breeding company with operations in Hong Kong and Cambodia that supplies the United States with research animals. The eight individuals have been charged with smuggling and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, the U.S.’s oldest wildlife protection law.
According to the indictment, putative breeding facilities in Cambodia made up for shortages in suitable captive-bred monkeys by exporting more than a thousand wild primates, identified falsely in export paperwork as captive bred, to Florida and Texas. Kry and other Cambodian government employees allegedly personally delivered wild long-tailed macaques to a facility in Pursat, Cambodia, between December 2017 and September 2022. The macaques were taken from national parks and protected areas in the country.
The indicted government officials allegedly received cash to participate in the scheme, which included payments for the collection and transport of up to 3,000 “unofficial animals” that could later be sold to customers in the U.S. and elsewhere. In 2020, Vanny Resource Holdings also is alleged to have separately paid more than $2.5 million to seven black market suppliers for more than 14,000 wild-caught macaques.
Around the same time the arrest occurred yesterday, Dany Chheang, deputy director general of Cambodia’s forestry administration, was speaking with National Geographic about long-tailed macaques and their possible illegal export from Cambodia at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference—the summit his colleague Kry was en route to attend.
Chheang told National Geographic that his country does not pass off wild long-tailed macaques as captive bred, adding that people often round up “problem” macaques and dump them at pagodas and tourist sites. The animals, Chheang said, are later caught and sent to a sanctuary—not killed or used for research. Laundering of wild-caught macaques “doesn’t happen,” he said. “People just make noise.”
Chheang continued, “This is international trade, so we can’t do things without CITES permits. It’s all in the log books.” Under CITES, long-tailed macaques have been regulated since 1977, meaning that each shipment of the protected animals requires paperwork declaring their origin.
“Macaque farming is successful for conservation,” Chheang said, and “if it weren’t for captive breeding, these animals would have disappeared long ago.”
Chheang did not respond to a request for comment following news of the arrest and indictment of his colleagues.
Earlier this year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed long-tailed macaques as endangered. Demand for the monkeys, popular with biomedical researchers because they’re easy to work with, soared during the pandemic. Scientists use them to test COVID-19 vaccines, as models for Alzheimer’s research, and to help ascertain the toxicity of pesticides to humans, among other things.
The International Primatological Society said in a recent statement that the capture of wild-caught monkeys for lab experiments and their misrepresentation as captive bred are a “major threat” to their conservation.
The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.
Cambodian Officials and Six Co-conspirators Indicted for Taking Part in Primate Smuggling Scheme | USAO-SDFL | Department of Justice
Department of Justice U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of Florida
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
MIAMI — Members of an international primate smuggling ring have been charged with multiple felonies for their role in bringing wild long-tailed macaques into the United States.
The eight-count indictment charges two officials of the Cambodian Forestry Administration, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; the owner/founder of a major primate supply organization and its general manager; and four of its employees with smuggling and conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. The defendants facing these felony charges are:
- Omaliss Keo, 58, of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Director General of the Cambodian Forestry Administration, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
- Masphal Kry, 46, of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Deputy Director of the Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity for the Cambodian Forestry Administration, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
- James Man Sang Lau, 64, of Hong Kong, Founder/Owner Vanny Resources Holdings, Ltd., and Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corporation Ltd.
- Dickson Lau, 29, of Hong Kong, General Manager Vanny Resources Holdings Ltd.
- Sunny Chan, a resident of Hong Kong, Deputy General Manager (Operations) at Vanny Group
- Raphael Cheung Man, 71, of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Public Relations and Export Manager for Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corporation Ltd.
- Sarah Yeung, a Hong Kong resident and Finance Officer of Vanny Group
- Hing Ip Chung, 61, of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, General Manager of Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corporation Ltd.
If convicted, each defendant faces up to 5 years in prison on the charge of conspiracy in count 1 and up to 20 years imprisonment on each of the smuggling charges in counts 2 through 8. There also are potential fines with respect to each count of up to $250,000 or twice the financial gain to the defendants.
Kry was arrested today at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, which resulted in the unsealing of the indictment.
According to allegations of the indictment, long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), sometimes known as crab-eating macaques, are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and require special permits in order to be imported into the U.S. Such documents enable the Convention parties to monitor the effects of the volume and type of trade to ensure trade is legal and not detrimental to the survival of listed species. The long-tailed macaque has been regulated under CITES since 1977. The provisions of CITES are implemented in the U.S. through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). CITES permits are individually numbered and include detailed information about the shipment, including a source code, which advises whether the animal was bred in captivity or taken from the wild.
The indictment further alleges that James Lau and Dickson Lau, operating from Hong Kong, owned and managed a series of related corporations that conspired with black market collectors and corrupt officials in Cambodia to acquire wild-caught macaques and launder them through the Cambodian entities for export to the U.S. and elsewhere, falsely labelled as captive bred.
In order to make up for a shortage of suitable monkeys at the putative breeding facilities in Cambodia, the co-conspirators enlisted the assistance of the CITES authority in Cambodia and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) to deliver wild-caught macaques taken from national parks and protected areas in Cambodia. These macaques were taken to breeding facilities and provided false CITES export permits. A collection quota of 3,000 “unofficial” monkeys was allowed for which MAFF officials received cash payments.
The conspiracy charge of the indictment lists 31 representative “overt acts” undertaken by one or more of the co-conspirators in their efforts to carry out their criminal enterprise. These include meetings, financial transactions, shipments of hundreds of macaques—wild caught mixed in with captive bred—to locations in Florida and Texas under false documents. Wild long-tailed macaques also were said to have been delivered by defendant Kry and other employees of MAFF to a facility in Pursat, Cambodia.
Between December 2017 and September 2022, Kry is alleged to have taken part in conversations regarding the pricing for wild macaques to be captured and delivered to monkey breeding facilities operated by the co-conspirators. Kry, who participated personally in delivering these “unofficial” macaques to the facilities, including Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corporation Ltd., also was provided payments for the illegal monkeys from the co-conspirators.
“The macaque is already recognized as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “The practice of illegally taking them from their habitat to end up in a lab is something we need to stop. Greed should never come before responsible conservation. Cases like this put us in a position where we can make a difference.”
Tracking and bringing those responsible for illegal import to justice is the first step in making that difference.
“Masphal KRY, a government official for the Cambodian Forestry Administration, will face justice in America as he was arrested today for his role in an alleged conspiracy to unlawfully import contrary to United States law and is purported to be involved in the importation of non-human primates, specifically long-tail macaques from Southeast Asia into the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge Ricky J. Patel from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Newark, N.J., Field Office. “HSI will continue to investigate customs violations impacting the United States and will partner with its federal partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and the Internal Revenue Service by leveraging all of our authorities to stop people and organizations from violating our laws—regardless of where they reside in the world.”
Investigations like these take a collaborative effort over a significant time period to yield results.
“Wild populations of long-tailed macaques, as well as the health and well-being of the American public, are put at risk when these animals are removed from their natural habitat and illegally sold in the United States and elsewhere,” said Edward Grace, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director, Office of Law Enforcement. “The Service spearheaded this complex, multi-year investigation that exposes the large-scale illegal laundering of wild long-tailed macaques for use in biomedical and pharmaceutical research. We led multiple U.S. federal agencies to provide a one-government approach to end the wholesale poaching of long tailed macaques from the wild and shut down this criminal organization.”
Juan Antonio Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Assistant Director Edward J. Grace, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Atlanta, and Special Agent in Charge Ricky J. Patel, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Newark, N.J., Field Office, made the announcement.
This case was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement; HSI, Newark, N.J., Field Office; HSI, Miami Field Office; and the Internal Revenue Service. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Emily Stone are prosecuting the case.
An indictment is only an accusation and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
If you have any information regarding this investigation, or other wildlife crimes, you may contact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at 1-800-344-9453. Locally, environmental crimes, including wildlife violations and environmental justice matters may be reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office at 305-961-9001 or USFLS.Environmental@usdoj.gov .