Lao Officials Begin Probe of Red Panda Trafficking Incident

Authorities arrest two Laotians for wildlife smuggling after the endangered mammals are rescued.

Wildlife conservation group Free the Bears Fund transports endangered red pandas it rescued from the back a van in Boten, northern Laos' Luang Namtha province, Jan. 12, 2018.

UPDATED at 9:37 A.M. EST on 2018-01-26

Lao officials are conducting an investigation into a man and woman arrested by border police earlier this month for trafficking six red pandas from China, three of which died despite efforts by a wildlife protection group to save them.

Lao custom officers at the Boten border in northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province stopped the pair during a random vehicle inspection on Jan. 12 and found the crated animals in their van.

After the officers discovered the rare pandas, they contacted Free the Bears Fund, an Australian wildlife-protection organization that operates in Laos and other Southeast Asian countries, so the bears could be transferred to a sanctuary at Tat Kuangxi outside Luang Prabang city, said Sengaloune Vongxay, manager of the group's Lao Bear Conservation Project.

Before the bears were transported, Sengaloune and a team went to check on the animals and found that three of them were very weak and unable to eat.

The team cared for the animals and informed Duangdy Kavikham, head of forest inspections at the border, that that the pandas could die in 24 hours, Sengaloune said.

One panda died on Jan. 14, while the other two remained in critical condition.

“We transported them all to the sanctuary,” Sengaloune said. “On the way, our veterinarian was taking care of the two sick pandas, but they died on the trip.

“Now the three healthy pandas are under the care of Free the Bears team at the sanctuary in Luang Prabang,” he said

The incident was the largest red panda rescue to date in Laos, he said, adding that officials do not know the intentions of the two people who transported them.

“According to Lao officials and our center, the pandas might have been trafficked into Laos to breed since our country does not have this kind of panda,” Sengaloune said.

He also said Laos could have been a transit point for the bears.

“It may have been their intention to traffic the pandas through Laos in order to reach a neighboring country like Thailand because they still have an issue with wildlife trading as household pets,” he said.

Authorities arrested the Lao driver of the van who reportedly said he planned to load the animals onto a vehicle at a truck stop in the northern city of Luang Namtha, National Geographic reported on Tuesday.

The driver said he did not know the pandas’ final destination.

Lao officials identified only the Lao woman in the van as 35-year-old Phengsy from Boten, but said both she and her husband are working on the Lao-Chinese railway project in Luang Namtha province.

Authorities have not publicly released details from the couple’s interrogation.

“We reported our findings to our department, and now we are waiting for their guidance,” Duangdy told RFA. “The couple has not yet appeared in court.”

It is unknown whether the three healthy red pandas will remain in Laos or be returned to China.

One of three surviving red pandas rescued from a van sits in a cage in a wildlife sanctuary in northern Laos' Luang Prabang province, Jan. 12, 2018. Credit: Free the Bears Fund
Hub for wildlife trafficking

A Lao government official in Luang Namtha who declined to be named told RFA that it would be impossible to breed the red pandas in Laos because of the expense and general difficulties of raising the animals, which he said were similar those of great pandas in China.

“It is very possible that the pandas were being trafficked to reach Thailand through Laos,” he said. “I believe that is the purpose this time.”

National Geographic quoted Rod Mabin, regional communication director for Free the Bears, as saying his group was surprised to see the red pandas being smuggled and “we suspect they were going into the exotic pet trade.”

The magazine also quoted Damber Bista of the Red Panda Network, an organization focused on conserving the animals, as saying they make poor pets because they are unfriendly and eat about a quarter of their body weight each day.

Laos is a major hub for wildlife trafficking for the exotic pet trade, despite international and national bans on the activity under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. Laos became a member of CITES in May 2004.

Other illegal wildlife trafficking incidents in Laos in recent years have involved tigers, long-tailed macaques, elephant tusks and ivory, turtles, snakes, tigers, and pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters.

A memo sent on Jan. 5 by the Lao prime minister’s office to various government departments has called for better protection of the country’s wildlife and improved cooperation with CITES agreements aimed at blocking trafficking in endangered species.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Manichanh Phimphachanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.