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Where did all the Tigers Go?These photographs adn the accompanying story depict the trade intigers. You may click any of these thumbnails for higher resolution. Or you may return to our main Gallery.
These photos represent a small part of the many horrific photos Karl has taken seeking to publicize the terrible toll in the trade of endangered wildlife. If there is something else you seek just let us know and we'll try to accomodate your needs.
Here is the story behind the photos.
Sometimes in Nov, 2008 a female tiger was killed along the Laos Vietnam border, Her two small cubs were caught and sold in a nearby township to a Vietnamese national, The estimated tiger population for Laos as a whole is estimated at some 20-30 of these large cats remaining.
In early December of 2008 I was filming with Spiegel TV in Boten, a casino enclave on the China Laos border, It is a town also well known for its illegal wildlife trade, While walking along the main road I noticed a Styrofoam box which was covered by a white rice sack and there was movement under the sack, I lifted it and found two Baby clouded leopards. I took them out and played with them and we managed to film this setting for a few minutes before the owner appeared grabbed the cubs and threw them back in the box covered them up and carried the box away.
While filming our guide/translator was approached by a lorry driver who had his vehicle parked nearby and had watched the scene, He came to tell him that if we were interested in wild cats and small cubs he knew a place where two small tigers were for sale.
We got the details and then drove from the Luang Namtah area of Northern Laos for six hours to a village near, Pak Mong, Our guide/ translator then started a discussion with the woman whose contact details we had obtained in Boten and she turned out to be a relative of the beer lorry driver. She told us that the cubs had been sold to a Vietnamese two days earlier and that she had no information as to where they came from or what happened to them.
I did some research via contacts in Laos and Vietnam to establish if there were any indications where the cubs could have ended up, All I cam up with is with locations of some tiger breeding farms but no indication that anybody kept any records of tigers leaving or arriving, I did send our guide back a few weeks later to see if he could convince the lady to look in the part of the house the babies were kept for some hair smaples, to:
- be sure that indeed we were dealing with tigers and
- DNA typing any cubs we might find on the Vietnam side which would in terms of Age match these two wild caught ones
He did get some more information as far as the prize paid: US 2000 each but no further indication where they ended up. It is well known that the tigers in the known tiger farms are badly inbred, that subspecies of tigers have been mixed (even lions have been bred with tigers) and as such it would have been very interesting to know if the buyer was aware that he was buying potentially very valuable genetic material and if the prize reflected the fact that these were wild caught tigers.
I returned to the household in 2009 for a short visit and again held a conversation via the translator and it now turned out that the wife of the lorry driver had played a key role in negotiating the sale of the two cubs and that they had come from an area very near the Vietnam border, She called the driver who is based in Vientiane and he indicated that he would be happy to provide more background and show us where the tiger mother was poached but he needed to take several days off to organize such a journey and we would have to agree on a future date for such a trip.
We decided to plan such a trip for 2010, I returned with a camera man in mid 2010 and we did meet up with the driver who introduced us to the two hunters who agreed to take us to the area the tiger mother was killed, It was either a boat ride and a six to eight hour walk or a car ride on a new road and then a four to five hour walk, We chose the second, We got to the end the road which supposedly is part of a German development project and will be a disaster as far as biodiversity conservation in this remote and very rugged part of Laos.
Despite the driver and the two hunters being well known in the village at the end of the road the chiefs were in conflict over aspects of the road project and could not agree to let us walk off into the forest, In the end my satellite phone was used to call high level regional officials who pronounced that we were in a no go area for tourists and should not leave the village, We spent the night but made no progress as far as getting permission to move on.
However the driver and hunters now felt bad about having promised to show us the hunting grounds and tell the story behind the two tiger cubs, So we arranged for a lengthy interview along the road and they suddenly became very forthcoming..
They told the following story: A farmer, some 4-5 hours walk from the above village, had lost a cow to what was a big predator, most likely a tiger, He sent them a message saying the carcass was still fresh and the cat would come back and they could get it. They went of to buy explosives (dynamite) from the road construction camp nearby, They knew how to work it into a trip land mine and showed us how the constructed it (possibly left over know how from the Vietnam war when guerilla ware fare was conducted along this border line).
They tracked to the cow carcass and set up the trap and checked it regularly, having to be concerned that a villager might by accident step on it, they blew up the mother within a day of setting up the mine. She had come back and clearly had brought along her cubs to possibly feed as well on the carcass, they managed to catch the cubs and put them in bags.
They butchered the mother and removed all bones, claws and teeth, The meat they carried back to the village but none of the other villagers was informed since they were concerned about having to share the proceeds from the sale of the parts of the mother and cubs, They ate the meat quietly with their families, The cubs were then transported to the village where the aunt of the driver lived, The left overs from the mother was sold to Vietnamese traders which regularly crossed the border mountains in this area to buy up any wildlife on offer and knew of a prominent dealer and buyer some 10 hours walk away near the Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu.
At this time we also got the name of the two Vietnamese buyer – the main one having moved back to Vietnam after getting into a fight over some gambling debt with some local youth near the location where the baby tigers were kept, We were told where he and his brother, who also lived in Laos, came from and now lived in Vietnam and the make of the car which had picked up the cubs as well as the border post to the Thanh Hoa province on which the babies crossed, which is also the home district of the two brothers.
But again no further details where the cubs might have ended up or how to get hold of the brothers, The village chiefs prior to this interview told us of an area near the border which was mostly savannah and which they said still held three or four tigers, They explained that the tigers no longer moved into the forest since they were easier to track there where mines could be set on specific animal tracks, That in the savannah they were much harder to track, They had considered to burn the grass in this savannah to then pin down these last cats but they needed the grass to thatch their roofs, (with the new road in place metal sheet roofing is arriving in the area on the back of pick ups and there soon will be no longer any need for grass for roofing. Another, I would assume, unintended consequence of such an ill conceived “development project’).
At this point they also told us about another cat presently for sale, the description did not allow us to establish what type we were really talking about, so we sent the driver off with a video camera to get some images ‘to show to some prospective buyers”. He did come back with footage of what seemed an adult golden cat chained by the neck in a small room, The material illustrates that this trade in high provfile life animals is going on pretty much on a daily basis, We now had the footage of the clouded leopard and the one of a golden cat but still none of any tigers.
Back in Luang Prabang, the main tourist destination in Laos, we filmed a very well done stone bust of a tiger outside a tracking company office, Our guide and translator also told the story of him having been very proud to show tiger foot prints in his trekking area up to a few years ago, but that now there were no longer any foot prints and as such the assumption was that around Luang Namtah all the tigers had gone.
The camera man and guide/tracker then flew down to the capital Vientiane and from there drove to a well known tiger farm to establish if they could get some images of captive tigers and possibly some more information where the two cubs could have ended up.
They were told there was a diseases outbreak at the farm and it had affected humans and animals and that all the keepers had required special vaccinations. As such there was no way they could get past the gate. This was interesting in the context of us having documented another such outbreak at a bear bile farm in Boten, where we originally also filmed the clouded leopard cubs, In that case horses had died, dogs had died and more then a dozen bears and we filmed one in the process of dying and having been thrown into the yard outside the main farm building. We did report this to veterinarians and conservation NGOs in the region, We were informed that this most likely involved a nasty virus: either Nipa or Hendra which was known for cross species infections and could also affect humans. Essentially the evidence was such that the area should have been quarantined and the information should have been passed on to the media, None of the parties we spoke to was willing to push the envelope and use this information and development to put some pressure on the local administration to close down the bear farm and change some of the habits concerning animal husbandry ( SARS and Bird Flue also originated in these parts of South East Asia).
Last month I was back in the area on another film shoot and decided to once again follow up on the tiger story, This time we were received, at the household where the two tiger cubs had been kept, with a special ceremony and special blessings, We went back to the road head but there was no additional information, However we were planning to now travel overland into Vietnam and as such needed a Vietnamese speaking translator. Our guide recruited one from the same township which had been home to the Vietnamese who bought the cubs in 2008, He also knew our driver and the guides and it later turned out had been involved in animal trafficking in the past, He agreed to accompany us to Dien Bein Phu in Vietnam and a nearby village which traders which regularly crossed the border illegally to the village at the road head and which would know about the tiger mother which was most likely transported on this route to a prominent dealer living in another township outside Dien Bien Phu.
After we left Laos there was some 5 kms of no mans land before we got to the Vietnam border post, The immigration and customs officials were all out for lunch so we had some time to look around, I walked back along the main road and then followed a well trodden path up a hill, On top was a fenced off enclosure with two nasty guard dogs on the outside making it clear not to come any closer, I asked our guide and translator to find out the reason for this establishment in no man’s land, He told me that the immigration/police/army was running a wildlife farm where they were breeding animals they ‘confiscated from traffickers”. It was not the first and turned out not to be the last time, that I came across evidence of the Vietnamese army/officials being very actively involved in the wildlife trade (once on an army camp to get clearance to go into the Vu Quang national Park I did some roaming around and came across a battery of cages holding Asian Black bears, On this trip I also visited a snake farm run by the army and was told they could deliver up to 1000 meters of python skin a year).
In the home village of our Vietnamese translator (now translating via our English speaking Laotian guide and translator) we met some of his family members. We now got his full story: He had fled to Laos after his brother was arrested for Heroin trading and he was worried he would be next. His brother now served a 15 year sentence at the Hanoi Hilton, He got a new name and identity in Laos and this was the first time he returned to Vietnam in seven years, using this new identity.
In the afternoon he took us to the main wildlife dealer in the area which bought up all the products coming from the area we had visited on the Laos’s side (but not life animals). He knew our translator and his relatives and it was clear that besides heroine they were or had been very active in wildlife trading and that the two activities often went hand in hand.
He told us that nowadays he was no longer very active and mostly concentrated on his dealership in motorbikes since the authorities had recently given him a hard time, He did show us some tiger teeth which were for sale and on the way out pulled out an envelope with a sliced piece of rhino horn marked as weighting 86.7 grams which he said had come from India via Burma and Laos and was worth US $3000.
We sent our Laos guide back the next morning with a hidden camera asking to buy some rhino horn for his sick father, The trader was much more accommodating without foreigners sitting in his shop and sawed off a piece of the rhino horn (which might also be fake) also offered some tiger glue/cake, a reddish square block which seems, in these parts, is the main product used to add to standard rice wine to turn it into tiger wine, He also produced another lot of tiger teeth and then took the team back to the kitchen area where he was boiling down some tiger bones, The images also show a range of crates holding a range of other wildlife products as well as trophies on the walls.
At this point the negotiations are all pretty open, none of the players involved seemed to be unduly concerned about potential law enforcement resulting from these interactions and transactions.
I guess for me the morale of the story is that a convicted heroin dealer is taken and dumped in the Hanoi Hilton for 15 years, a well known wildlife trafficker switches some of his trade from on the table to under the table and there are no further consequences.
As long as these are the standards of law enforcement and political will when relating to wildlife crimes in the South East Asia region, then there is no hope, The way some of the governments (including the one in Thailand under the former prime minister) deal with drug traffickers would need to be expanded to the wildlife trade. Without it there is no hope for South East Asia’s wildlife.
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