U.S. charges Cambodian officials in monkey smuggling ring

The Cambodian agency responsible for protecting wildlife denied the allegations.
By Jack Adamović Davies
2022.11.17
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U.S. charges Cambodian officials in monkey smuggling ring A long-tailed macaque feeds a juvenile in Lopburi, Thailand, in this file photo. Only long-tailed macaques bred in captivity are allowed to be exported and used for experiments.
Credit: Reuters

Kry Masphal, the deputy director of the Cambodian agency responsible for protecting wildlife, was arrested on Wednesday in New York for his alleged involvement in a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring to export a species of endangered monkeys to the U.S. for use in medical research.

Kry was one of eight people charged earlier this year in a sealed indictment for illegally selling long-tailed macaques, which have been protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1977. Only monkeys bred in captivity are allowed to be exported and used for experiments. The U.S. Justice Department alleges Kry and his co-defendants schemed to sell wild macaques poached from national parks and other protected places. 

Kry, who works in Cambodia's Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity within its Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), was on his way to CITES’ annual conference in Panama when he was arrested at the Kennedy International Airport. Also charged in the indictment was Kry’s boss, Forestry Administration Director General Keo Omaliss, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The MAFF said in a statement that it was “surprised and saddened” by Kry’s arrest. “We uphold CITES convention principles and laws,” it said.

Speaking from the conference in Panama, Nao Thuok, the head of Cambodia’s CITES Management Authority, told RFA his colleague’s arrest had come as a shock.

“It was a surprise, if he knew then he would not have come,” Nao told RFA, saying that he learned of Kry’s arrest from a colleague who had been traveling with him.

Nao added that he did not believe the accusations, which he said are out of character for Kry.

Catch and launder

Prosecutors allege Keo ordered the illegal capture of wild macaques on behalf of Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corp. Ltd., which runs two macaque breeding farms in Phnom Penh and Pursat. 

The breeder is accused of laundering the wild monkeys through the farms and passing them off as captive-bred specimens prior to shipping them to buyers in Florida and Texas. According to the indictment, Keo and his colleagues provided the company with permits falsely attesting to the macaques’ purported captive-bred status.

In total, the indictment alleges that 2,634 wild-caught macaques with a declared value of $9.3 million were illegally brought into the U.S. 

Nao told RFA that only he had the authority to sign CITES export permits. He said that while he has signed permits for Vanny Bio Research, he only ever did so for monkeys bred in captivity.

Also charged were Vanny Bio Research President James Man Sang Lau and five of his employees. The indictment alleges that Lau and staff at the company made payments totaling tens of thousands of dollars to both the MAFF and the Cambodian People’s Party in return for Kry, Keo and other unnamed officials’ assistance in securing long-tailed macaques for export to the U.S.

An election pause

The relationship between Vanny Bio Research and MAFF allegedly began with a December 2017 meeting between Keo and the company’s head of public relations, Raphael Cheung Man, who has also been charged. 

Following the meeting, prosecutors claim that Man emailed Lau and two other colleagues to say that in return for a “royalty tax” Keo would arrange for MAFF staff to collect approximately 2,000 monkeys for the company, adding that Keo “will instruct the director of the National Park to work out a survey report of the animal population,” according to the indictment.

The following May, Man sent another email to colleagues reporting that Keo had been informed that the company needed an additional 300 to 500 monkeys to fulfill an order for that July and that “Keo would try to persuade his superior to allow collection of the needed monkeys.”

Man is alleged to have added that any further collection of wild monkeys by ministry employees would have to take place after the upcoming national Cambodian elections scheduled for July 29 “to avoid unnecessary attention from the public and non-governmental organizations.” The email is also said to have requested a $40,000 payment be made to MAFF.

Payment plan

The following month, Man is alleged to have sought the payment.

Prosecutors quote a remittance document sent from the company’s headquarters in Hong Kong suggesting the $40,000 arrived in Vanny Bio Research’s Cambodian bank account on June 25. 

The following day, Man allegedly received another email from headquarters with a “Purchase Application Form” dated June 18 for a “Donation for CPP Party (Request for Mr. Omaliss)” in the amount of $10,000.

The indictment describes similar conduct playing out until January.

In one instance during 2019, after delivering 24 macaques to Vanny Bio Research’s farm in Pursat with the assistance of two other MAFF employees, Kry is alleged to have recommended that the company should buy more land around its facility to allow the construction of a road that would be “more safe for the smuggling.”

Vanny Bio Research President Lau did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Thursday.

‘An extremely cruel trade’

The illegal export of wild-caught macaques is “an extremely cruel trade,” according to Nick Marx, director of wildlife rescue at the Wildlife Alliance, which frequently collaborates with the Forestry Administration.

“We know throughout the world that long-tailed macaques have been listed as endangered because of this trade, not just in Cambodia but throughout their range,” Marx told RFA.

Macaques only give birth once every two years, he added, meaning that legal captive breeding struggles to meet demand. The flourishing illegal trade creates a surplus of test monkeys that makes them “expendable” and weakens incentives for pharmaceutical companies to treat them with care.

“If countries just abided by the laws that they themselves had drafted, there would be millions less [test monkeys], they would be more valuable and better treated,” he said. 

Joint investigation

In June, U.S. prosecutors filed a sealed indictment against Keo, Lau and five of his employees, but made no mention of Kry. Kry’s name was added to a superseding indictment filed on Nov. 3, less than two weeks prior to his arrest in New York.

His arrest was the culmination of a joint investigation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm.

“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,” Homeland Security Investigations special agent Ricky J. Patel said on Wednesday.

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