SEEJ-AFRICA: The June 29th, 2022, arrest of Malaysian national, Teo Boon Ching, for wildlife trafficking and money laundering attracted minimal attention besides a few media houses in Thailand and Malaysia. For wildlife crime investigators, however, this was an arrest of significance. The announcement of his pending extradition from Thailand to the United States almost certainly indicates a connection to Moazu Kromah and the so-called West African Cartel, premier suppliers of ivory and rhino horn in Africa since at least 2012.
The following is a compilation of information from the Environmental Investigation Agency, the Wildlife Justice Commission, The Eagle Network, Center for Environmental Forensic Science, news outlets from Thailand and Malaysia, and others.
For those even sporadically interested in international wildlife crime, when either the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) or Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) ‘raises a glass’, figuratively or literally, to the capture of an international wildlife trafficker, one has to sit up and take note. Last week, June 29th, 2022, the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai police, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, made such an arrest. Malaysian national, Teo Boon Ching aka Boon Ching Teo, was arrested for wildlife trafficking and money laundering offences. He is to be held pending extradition to the United States.
While no information as to specific charges has been released, the EIA describes Boon Ching as a “key player in the illegal wildlife trade between Africa and Asia. Thai Police authorities stated: “Teo did not have an exact place of residence. He was always travelling from one country to another, especially Africa, and was therefore difficult to trace.”
So who exactly is Teo Boon Ching and what is his importance? With an extradition to the United States in the works, and taken in conjunction with the 2019 takedown of the hierarchy of the West African Cartel (recently convicted in New York), it would not be a stretch to assume that Boon Ching’s arrest was related. The EIA, in their report, “Exposing the Hydra”, refers to Boon Ching as a key member of a Vietnamese wildlife trafficking syndicate, taking the role of a “specialist transporter”. His contraband of preference was elephant ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. Boon Ching had reportedly been in the business for 20 years and operated a clearance, transportation and sales service for illegal wildlife products from Malaysia (allegedly based in Johor) to Laos and China.
With Boon Ching as a specialist transporter, and Moazu Kromah of the West African Cartel as a prime supplier of ivory and rhino horn in Africa, it would only make sense that their paths would have crossed. The connection is made even stronger considering that one of Kromah’s customers was Vixay Keosavang and the Vannaseng Trading Co Ltd. Keosavang, known as the “Pablo Escobar of the wildlife trade” is based in Laos and has been in the sights of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for some years.
Despite his 20 years in the business, public record indicates that Teo Boon Ching had been arrested only once before on wildlife related charges. On January 1, 2015, Thai police arrested Kampol “Riam” Noithanom, with 134.7 kg of ivory hidden in an ice container mounted on the rear of a pickup truck. The capture took place approximately 250 km from the Laotian border and 50 km from the Cambodian border.
Subsequent investigation resulted in the arrest of Teo Boon Ching and a Thai national accomplice, Sirichai Sridanond, three months later on March 19th. It was alleged that Boon Ching and Sridanond had supplied the ivory to Noithanom for onward transport. Reports differ on the conclusion of that prosecution but at worst, Boon Ching received a minimal fine.
It is of interest that during a police press conference at the time of the 2015 arrest, officials stated: “Mr. Teo Boon Ching has made numerous trips to Kenya. This shows that the illegal ivory trade networks in Thailand are connected to foreign businessmen. Mr. Teo Boon Ching’s frequent trips to the African region, which is Kenya, has led us to believe that this is an African trans-national ivory trade network.”
At that time, Mombasa was the primary port of egress for ivory from Africa and much of that ivory was supplied by Moazu Kromah and the West African cartel. Shortly after Boon Ching’s March 19th arrest, two containers of ivory, one from Matadi, Democratic Repubic of Congo (DRC), and the other from Mombasa, were seized in Bangkok one week apart. The Mombasa related seizure is now before the Mombasa courts and allegedly connected to Kromah. The destination of both containers was Laos and shared the same importer.
The EIA report, “Exposing the Hydra” provides some insight into the work of Boon Ching and his value to the Vietnamese syndicate. Boon Ching worked in conjunction with Nguyen Tien Son, who operated in Congo, Laos, Mozambique, Nigeria and Vietnam, as well as, Le Thi Thank Hai, another transport specialist who primarily moved wildlife contraband from Laos into Vietnam and China.
Teo Boon Ching also provided his logistical services to Chinese organised crime groups as well. He told EIA undercover operatives that he had been instrumental in recovering two containers of pangolin scales that had been enroute to Hong Kong when a sister shipment of 7.2 tonnes of ivory had been seized in July 2017. Typically, wildlife traffickers maintain the same logistical ‘road’ (similar route, consignees, consignor), until there is reason to change it. In this case, the seizure of the 7.2 tonnes of ivory would have alerted law enforcement and customs agencies to a number of pending seaborne contraband arrivals.
Boon Ching said that he had been approached by a Chinese businessman from Xianyou by the name of ‘Lin’, to ascertain if a number of other containers of pangolin scales could be saved from seizure. Boon Ching made contact with his Nigeria connections and two containers of pangolin scales were re-routed in time to prevent their seizure. Four other containers, however, were seized; two containers of 8000 kg of pangolin scales in Sabah, Malaysia, on July 29th, 2017, and two containers of 3000 kg of ivory and 5000 kg of pangolin scales, also at Sabah, Malaysia, on August 29th. All containers, including the two seized in Hong Kong with 7200 kg of ivory, originated from Nigeria. The 7200 kg ivory shipment has been definitively linked to the Kromah network.
The Chinese businessman identified as ‘Lin”, may well be Lin Zhiyong, known to have Malaysian connections while working with the Chinese cartel of Chen JianCheng and his two sons. They were identified by the Wildlife Justice Commission in a comprehensive February 2022 report, entitled “Bringing Down the Dragon”, an analysis of China’s largest ivory smuggling case.” Lin Zhiyong is presently in a Chinese jail on a life sentence related to his wildlife crime activities.
And while Boon Ching boasted of only one seizure from the 80 container shipments he personally handled (easily in excess of 80 tonnes of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales), his Achilles heel may well turn out to be the smaller air freight shipments he organised into Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) from East and West Africa. It is known that on Kromah’s initial arrest in 2017, his mobile phone contained copies of bills of lading of a number of airfreight shipments from Entebbe International Airport, Kampala, to KLIA, as well as other destinations.
On July 21st, 2016, three different seizures were made at KLIA from three different flights that originated from Kinshasa, DRC, via Istanbul, on Turkish Airlines. The total of ivory weight was 1001 kg, all three shipments declared as wood samples, and all for the same fictitious Johor consignee. This same Johor consignee was the intended ‘buyer’ of a June 2016 1286 kg ivory seizure in Juba, South Sudan that was also destined for KLIA. This shipment was directly attributable to the Kromah network and featured ivory from the supposedly secure Burundi government ivory stockpile.
One week later, another seizure at KLIA, this time originating from Entebbe IA but via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and yielding another 111 kg of ivory. The bill of lading for this shipment was found on Kromah’s phone.
In January 2017, 846.8 kg of ivory, comprised of 254 tusks in 17 wooden boxes, was recovered at KLIA. This Turkish airlines flight had originated from Kinshasa, DRC, and again transited Istanbul. The shipment had been declared as wood samples, again similar to the to the July 2016 seizure. Another similarity, besides the logistics, was the tusk origin. DNA analysis showed the tusks to be primarily savannah elephant ivory from Zambia. This was atypical at the time as most savannah ivory analysed had originated from Mozambique, Tanzania and southern Kenya.
Between March 2016 and October 2016, there were at least three other flights into KLIA, two from Entebbe and one from South Sudan, as indicated by bills of lading on Moazu Kromah’s phone. The total weight of ivory between the three flights was 1295 kg.
Wildlife crime experts and affiliated NGO’s now await the outcome of the extradition hearing and subsequent charging details. But one thing is a certainty. The evidence presented in court against Teo Boon Ching will be a gross understatement on the actual total amount he has shipped from Africa to South East Asia in the past 20 years.
And hopefully, there are more yet to fall.