The following photographs depict the trade in tigers. They depict a very small part of the many horrific photos Karl has taken seeking to publicize the terrible toll in the trade of endangered wildlife.
Here is the story behind these pictures.
Sometime in November 2008 a female tiger was killed along the Laos Vietnam border. Her two small cubs were caught and sold to a Vietnamese national in a nearby township. The estimated tiger population in Laos was then estimated at only 20 to 30 individuals.
In early December of 2008 I was filming with Spiegel TV in Boten, a casino enclave town on the China-Laos border, a town is also well known for its illegal wildlife trade. While walking along the main road, I noticed a Styrofoam box covered by a white rice sack, with movement under the sack. I lifted the sack and found two baby clouded leopards. I took them out and played with them; we managed to film this setting for a few minutes before the owner appeared, grabbed the cubs, threw them back in the box, covered them up and carried the box away.
While filming, our translator-guide was approached by a lorry driver who had his vehicle parked nearby and had watched the scene. He told 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 for six hours from the Luang Namtah area of Northern Laos to a village near Pak Mong. Our translator-guide started discussing with the woman whose contact details we had obtained in Boten; she was a relative of the beer lorry driver. She told us that the cubs had been sold to a Vietnamese person two days earlier; she had no further information as to where they came from or what happened to them.
Via contacts in Laos and Vietnam, I did some research to find out where the cubs could have ended up; all I came up with is the locations of tiger breeding farms. There was no indication of anyone keeping any records of the tigers arriving of leaving these facilities. A few weeks later, I decided to send our guide back to where the lady was, to ask her to look for tiger hair samples in the house where the babies were kept; the idea was to:
- Make sure that we were indeed dealing with tigers, and
- DNA-type any cubs we might find on the Viet Nam side and that would match the age of the two wild-caught babies.
He got information on the prize paid (US $2,000 each) but no nothing on where they ended up.
It is well known that the tigers in 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 lady’s household in 2009 for a short visit; conversing through the translator I learned that the wife of the lorry driver had played a key role in negotiating the sale of the two cubs and that they came from an area close to the Vietnam border. She called the lorry driver, based in Vientiane; he indicated that he would be happy to provide more background and show us where the tiger mother was poached. He only needed to take several days off to organize such a journey and we would have to agree on a future date for the trip.
We decided to plan that trip for 2010. I returned mid-2010 with a cameraman; we met with the lorry 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 a four to five hour walk. We chose the second and got to the end the road (apparently part of a German development project and that will be a disaster in terms of 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 announced that we were in a no-go area for tourists and should not leave the village. We spent the night there but made no progress as far as getting permission to move on.
However, the driver and hunters felt bad having promised to show us the hunting grounds and tell us the story of the capture of the two tiger cubs, and arranged for a lengthy interview along the road; they suddenly became very forthcoming. They told the following story: A farmer about 4 to 5 hours walk from the village had lost a cow to a big predator, most likely a tiger. He sent the hunters a message saying the carcass was still fresh, that the cat would come back and they could get it. They bought dynamite from the nearby road construction camp; they knew how to work it into a trip landmine (possibly leftover knowhow from the Vietnam War, when guerilla warfare was conducted along this borderline) and showed us how they made it.
They trekked to the cow carcass, set up the trap and checked it regularly, concerned that a villager might by accident step on it. They managed to blow-up the mother within a day of setting up the mine; she had come back with her cubs, possibly so that they could fed on the carcass. The hunters caught the cubs and put them in bags. They butchered the mother and removed all bones, claws and teeth. They carried the meat and the cubs back to the village, without telling the other villagers as they didn’t want to share the proceeds of the sale of the cubs and of some of the mother’s parts. They ate the meat quietly, sharing only with their families.
They then transported the cubs to the village where an aunt of the driver lived. The leftovers from the mother were sold to Vietnamese traders who regularly crossed the border mountains in the area to buy wildlife and who knew a prominent dealer and buyer some 10 hours walk away, near the Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu.
This is when we got the name of the two Vietnamese brothers who bought the cubs; the main one had moved back to Vietnam after a fight over a gambling debt with local youth near where the baby tigers were kept. We were also told where he and his brother (who also lived in Laos) came from, where they now lived in Vietnam, the make of the car that had picked up the cubs, as well as of the Thanh Hoa province border post where the babies crossed, in home district of the two brothers.
But we got no further details on where the cubs might have ended up or how to get hold of the brothers. Prior to this interview, the village chiefs had told us of an area near the border, which was mostly savannah, and where they said there was still three or four tigers. They explained that the tigers no longer moved into the forest because where they were easier to trap and where mines were set on animal tracks; they were much harder to track in the savannah. Villagers had considered burning the grass in this savannah to get these last cats, but they needed the grass to thatch their roofs. Unfortunately, with the new road, metal sheet roofing is arriving in the area and there soon will be no longer need for roofing grass; another 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 of cat it was, so we sent the driver with a video camera to get images “to show to some prospective buyers”. He came back with footage of what seemed to be an adult golden cat chained by the neck in a small room. The material illustrates that this trade in high profile live animals is going on pretty much on a daily basis. We now had footage of clouded leopard cubs and 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 trekking company office. Our guide and translator told us being very proud to be able to show tiger footprints in his trekking area up to a few years ago, but that nowadays there were no longer any footprints and as such, the assumption was that around Luang Namtah, all the tigers had gone.
The camera man and tracker-guide then flew down to the capital, Vientiane, and from there drove to a well-known tiger farm to try to get images of captive tigers and more information about where the two tiger cubs could have ended up. They were told that there was a disease outbreak at the farm, that it had affected humans and animals, that all the keepers had required special vaccination, and they were therefore denied passing the gate.
This was interesting in the context of us having documented another such outbreak at a bear bile farm in Boten, the town where we originally also filmed the clouded leopard cubs. In that case, horses and dogs and over a dozen bears had died; we had filmed one that had been thrown in the yard outside the main farm building, where he was dying. We had reported this to veterinarians and conservation NGOs in the region and were informed that this most likely involved a nasty virus: either Nipa or Hendra, known for cross-species infections and that 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 flu also originated in these parts of South East Asia).
Later on, I was back in the area on another film shoot and decided to once again follow-up on the tiger story. 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. We were now planning to travel overland in Vietnam and needed a Vietnamese speaking translator; our guide recruited one from the township that had been home to the Vietnamese who bought the cubs in 2008. The translator knew our driver and the guides and it later turned out that he had been involved in animal trafficking in the past. He agreed to accompany us to Dien Bein Phu, in Vietnam and to a nearby village where traders that regularly crossed the border illegally, to the village at the road head and which would know about the tiger mother that was most likely transported on this route to a prominent dealer living in another township outside Dien Bien Phu.
After we left Laos, there were some 5 km of no man’s land before getting 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 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 the reason for this establishment in the 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 time, and turned out not to be the last one, that I came across evidence of the Vietnamese army officials being very actively involved in wildlife trade. Once, on an army camp to get clearance to go in 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 1,000 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 trading heroin and he was worried he would be next. His brother was now serving 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 his new identity.
In the afternoon, he took us to the main wildlife dealer in the area, the one buying all the products coming from the area we had visited on the Laos’s side, except for live animals. He knew our translator and his relatives and it was clear that besides heroin, 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 that he mostly concentrated on his dealership in motorbikes since the authorities had recently given him a hard time. He did show us tiger teeth that 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 with a hidden camera the next morning, 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 be fake) and also offered some tiger glue/cake, a reddish square block that seems to be, in these parts, 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 took the team back to the kitchen area where he was boiling down tiger bones. The images also show crates holding a range of other wildlife products, as well as trophies on the walls.
At this point, the negotiations were 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, there is no hope. The way some 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.
For more on tigers, please consult Karl’s The Tiger Mafia website.