Editor’s note: This comprehensive account describes the prodigious effort it took to set up relations with a large-scale exotic pet trafficker based in Southeast Asia and pull off a sting operation. Exoticpet88, the name of an Instagram account, was reputedly run by a kingpin animal trafficker named Joe. The account advertised a wide range of wildlife species for sale, with most of the animals or birds being captured in the wild. Exoticpet88 operated a farm on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, where it held the animals before shipment. The network was made up of field wildlife collectors in Southeast Asia and wildlife suppliers further afield in Africa and Latin America, inferred from the species seen in online posts. They had particularly strong connections with traders and buyers in the Middle East and South Asia.
It took 5 months of effort, with dead-ends, stops and starts, shifts in undercover identities, and great persistence to finally lay a trap aimed at catching the head of the Exoticpet88 network in the act of illegally selling two infant orangutans. The undercover investigator used various aliases and this narrative describes how others assisted in the operation. The investigator last used the alias Nick and this is his story.
PART I – David and Joe
I first heard of Exoticpet88 in late December, 2015, when Patricia emailed me with a screenshot of his Instagram account as it appeared on a mobile phone. She wrote, “Instagram account exoticpet88 … is apparently a man who calls himself Joy [sic] in Thailand. He exports all kinds of animals to the Arab countries via the Oman airport. He sends gibbons with dogs in crates, so the dogs’ barking veil the gibbons. He is one of many Thai dealers, I’m told, that do the same. They take animals from all over Southeast Asia (gibbons, lorises, orangs, etc.). He even has a picture of a clouded leopard on the attached image.”
I first met Patricia Tricorache of the Cheetah Conservation Fund electronically in June, 2015, when she emailed me out of the blue asking if I knew anything about cheetah cub capture and trafficking from the Horn of Africa. I said I didn’t, but that I’d seen quite a few posts on social media of cheetahs either being offered for sale or being flaunted by proud owners, mainly in the Gulf. Since we were both engaged in investigating illegal wildlife trade, me with great apes and her with cheetahs, we agreed to collaborate. Soon after that, she began sharing with me a very large collection of material that she had amassed from years of work. I had only started looking at Facebook and Instagram accounts in March of that year, so Patricia’s information provided me with a huge boost.
I reciprocated by sending her the account links of cheetahs I came across, after checking first with her Excel spreadsheet that listed those she had already found. We soon had an active exchange system running, demonstrating the truth of the adage that ‘two heads are better than one’.
Over time I developed my methodology of how I would find new traffickers, figure out who was linked with whom, who was a dealer, who an exotic pet owner (i.e. buyer), who was both, and discerning the networks of suppliers, middlemen, clients and those who collaborated closely with one another. It took a while to determine the composition of the interlinked wildlife trafficking networks based in South, Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Americans, Europeans and Hong Kong Chinese also appeared in the exchanges, but not mainland Chinese. I thought this odd, until I discovered that China does not allow Facebook or Instagram to operate. Chinese use mainly Weibo, Alibaba, Taobao (owned by Alibaba) and WeChat to conduct the trafficking business.
The way I recorded the information I found online also evolved over time. After about a year I had down pat how I would crop the screen grab to include the photo, the name of the account, any important comments on it (which might mean more than one screenshot if I had to scroll down) and the date. I would label the screenshot in a numbered sequence with the date of the post DD/MM/YR. I downloaded mainly great ape posts, but I also started collecting information including contact emails and mobile/WhatsApp numbers, other social media accounts, posts of financial transactions (some of the traffickers actually posted bank transfer and deposit documents), visits to other countries, group photos, Friends and Followers of interest, and any other photos that might provide useful information about activities, identities and locations. I discovered that re-posts of the same animal photo on different accounts was fairly common, which created problems for identifying who made the original post and when it was made. Some ‘for sale’ advertisement posts were also deleted after a sale was made, creating more difficulties in recording everything that was going on, as I must have missed many of those. I made up a couple of Excel databases, one with the names and data by country, the other with the names and numbers of each species seen to get a count.
The work was extremely time-consuming and as the number of persons-of-interest (POI) increased, it became progressively more difficult to monitor all of the existing POIs and add new ones. Some of the POIs had multiple Facebook (FB) and/or Instagram (IG) accounts in different names, and determining that took time. Accounts would also close from time to time, I was never certain of the reason, and sometimes I could find a new one pop up owned by the same POI as a recently closed account.
Back to Exoticpet88
Patricia gave me access to her screengrabs of Exoticpet88. Most were crops of the photos only, but some were whole page screen grabs so I could see the photo, name of the account, a few comments and how long ago it was posted. One of these proved that the account owner was based in Jakarta and strongly suggested he was selling chimpanzees. Where were they coming from? The screengrab was dated 14 July 2014 and it was 87 weeks old, so posted around April 2012. There were other posts of chimpanzees, infant orangutans, all kinds of monkeys, big cat cubs, red pandas, reptiles (including crocodiles) and colorful birds. On many of his posts and in his profile he gave his email address. In early 2016, the Exoticpet88 account disappeared from Instagram.
I made some enquiries and was told that Joe had quit the exotic pet trading business. Some time earlier I had come across a Kuwaiti who announced he was quitting the business. His IG moniker was @exoticpet, plus other accounts with a variation on the name. Was there a connection with @exoticpet88?
In August 2016 I decided to contact the old @exoticpet88 email address with an alias name email account I had set up for other purposes years earlier, so if @exoticpet88 checked it he would see it was old and not one set up recently just to contact him.
I wrote, “Hello, are you still in business? I’m looking for something.”
I’d struck pay dirt! Over two weeks later I replied, “Am looking for young otans.” In previous communications with Indonesian traffickers some referred to orangutans as ‘otans’, so I thought using the term would show Joe that I was not a novice.
The next day he replied, “Give me your cell number pls”.
Two days later I responded, “Use WhatsApp +XXXXXXXXXX”, giving him a WhatsApp number from a country I was not in, to help hide my identity. As I travelled around I opened WhatsApp accounts on different devices with the country codes and numbers of the different countries. As long as we stuck with WhatsApp I was okay, but if he wanted a cell phone call I was dead, unless I was actually in the country of the number at the time.
Joe got back to me the next day with the message below.
A zoo license? I guessed he was being careful, trying not to appear to be what he was – a big-time exotic pet trafficker, as his IG handle indicated. Our conversation progressed as shown below. I’m the green-coloured text.
The person I thought was Joe called me by mobile service network, not WhatsApp audio, I imagine to confirm that I actually was in South Africa. I was using a +27 country code SIM card and just happened to be in South Africa at the time. The man spoke reasonably good English with what sounded like a Malaysian or Indonesian accent. He said that Joe was no longer running @exoticpet88, but that he was. He said for me to call him Tom. After speaking briefly, he sent me a video of a young orangutan he said was for sale. He asked me if I knew a wildlife trader in South Africa named Eddy. I said I didn’t. I later passed the name on to someone who studied wildlife trade based in South Africa with TRAFFIC. He hadn’t heard of any Eddy either.
His mobile number was +855 81 followed by six numbers. I went online to see if I could trace it, using Truecaller and a reverse caller number lookup app, plus just using a Google search. Nothing. A +855 area code is both the country code for Cambodia and a toll-free number that can be purchased for use in the USA and Canada. But there was no ‘81’ city code for Cambodia and the only five mobile prefixes in the country were +855 11, 12, 15, 16 and 18. No 81. All the North American +855 numbers require seven following numbers, and Joe’s was eight. Indeed a mystery.
It was now the 3rd of October, I was leaving South Africa on the 5th. There was a New York Times journalist very interested in doing a story on great ape trafficking and he was eager to go along with me to witness the sting and arrest, but it was difficult setting a time when he could go to Indonesia. That explains my “am checking with partner and buyer” above. I flew to another country on the 5th and contacted Tom on 6th October with the South African WhatsApp number.
I had found that Tom or his associates had set up a new IG account in September or October 2016 called @exoticpetworld and many of the posts were re-posts from @exoticpet88.
Otans selling quickly to China was not good news. I knew that there was a rapidly expanding zoo and safari park industry there, orangutans were popular.
I was in Dubai 18-22 October to collect information about wildlife traffickers operating there from various sources that I had developed over the previous two-and-a-half years. I replaced the South African SIM card with a UAE one.
I traced the number to Byat Juma bin Byat, one of the owners of Amazonpet, a major exotic animal trafficker in the UAE. I had recently visited their two pet shops in Al Warsan, on the outskirts of Dubai, and had been monitoring their ads of great apes, gibbons, tiger and lion cubs and other endangered species for a couple of years. I had even posted comments on their IG account asking to buy chimpanzees, but no reply, and then on 19th October while in Dubai I sent a message by WhatsApp to the number advertised on their IG account asking to buy an ape pet. They replied that they only had reptiles. I thought it was too risky to contact them again with the same UAE number and a different cover story. By 23 October, when Tom sent me the number, I had already left Dubai and could not therefore buy a new UAE SIM card. Bad timing.
My exchange with Tom ceased for the time being.
End of Part I