Category Archives: online trafficking

Anatomy of a Sting: Postscript

Tom, Joe and all the rest of the wildlife traffickers who use social media platforms to market nature’s bounty are still out there, operating almost with impunity. U.S. law gives Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and all of the other Internet service providers immunity from responsibility for whatever third-party users post, even if it breaks the law, because of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act.

A compounding problem to putting a stop to the rape of nature that exotic pet trade epitomizes is the fact that most countries consider wildlife crime relatively unimportant. Even though the Royal Thai Police put a lot of effort into pulling off the Kid Op sting, the prosecutor’s office apparently did not think the case important enough to investigate further and gather all the evidence needed for a court case. For example, who was “Joe” at Samutprakarn, who supposedly owned the orangutan infants?

Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm & Zoo, not far from Bangkok, is a horror show of abused animals, including an endless string of baby orangutans, chimpanzees and tigers that pass through there, used as photo props and for degrading performances for fee-paying visitors. There are several similar facilities in Thailand that rake in money from the suffering of wildlife, most of which originate in the wild from criminal capture. Were the ‘kids’ held at Samutprakarn from the time they arrived in the Bangkok area up to their seizure in the sting of 21st December? We will probably never know.

Samutprakarn often keeps orangutan or chimp juveniles chained to the floor to attract visitors.

The seized kids were named Nobita and Shizuka and are still, three years after their seizure, being held at the Khao Prathap Chang Wildlife Breeding Centre in Ratchaburi province. At the time of the sting funds were available for their repatriation to Sumatra, where they were originally captured, but three years later those funds are gone. I was repeatedly told they could be relocated to a sanctuary when the case was closed. There never was a case.

Nobita and Shizuka are still at the Thai government facility three years after their seizure. (Photo courtesy of Edwin Wiek)

Anatomy of a Sting – Part II

PART II – Nick and Tom

After coming to a dead-end as David with Tom, I decided to try another tack. I contacted a friend in Thailand whom I’d worked with previously on illegal wildlife trade investigations and asked her if she would assist with this online exotic pet probe. I’ll call her Noi, the fake name we agreed to use. She agreed. I gave her instructions of how to approach Tom using private messaging through the @exoticpetworld IG account. The account had recently posted this orangutan infant:

Noi made first contact:


 

I did not suggest that Noi describe the New York Times journalist and I as a ‘homo couple’, she came up with that herself. I only told her to say that two men who lived together in Phuket wanted an orangutan pet. Phuket is an island in the south of Thailand. I’d been there earlier in 2016 and saw two newly arrived infant orangutans at the local zoo that were being used as photo props, so thought that using them would be a good cover story.


 

Here he was asking about the zoo license again, so it appears that this is standard operating procedure. I wondered now whether some of this exotic animal supplier’s clients used zoos as a cover for illegal import. I knew that Thailand had some notorious private zoos such as Samutprakarn Crocodile Park & Zoo, Bangkok Safari World and Pata Zoo that had wild animals coming and going in and out of their facilities, often under questionable circumstances.

 

Exoticpetworld now sent six photos of orangutans and chimps, all from old Exoticpet88 posts. He told Noi that one was $12,000, including delivery to Thailand. He gave the name of his Thai associate and a Bangkok Bank savings account number into which I should deposit the down payment. Noi replied:


 

Tom of Exoticpetworld wanted the 50% deposit as a guarantee that this was not a ‘snooper’ operation or sting. He was calling the deal an ‘adoption’, to disguise the fact that it was an international commercial transaction and therefore illegal, as all CITES Appendix I cross-border trades require export and import permits, not to mention veterinary certificates, Customs clearances and tax declarations on profits. Noi thought that the apes might already be in Thailand. I asked Noi to send him a message in Thai asking this, which she did on 12th November. He answered with a ‘?’, which indicated that he wasn’t Thai and could not understand it. Noi asked Tom how delivery of the ‘kid’ could be made. He replied:


 

Tom was pressuring Noi to speak on the phone, but she was afraid she would blow it and refused. I asked her to try to set up a meeting on 18th November in Bangkok to inspect the orangutan. The NYT journalist was ready to hop on a plane once I had everything set up.

 

I decided that it was time to go to Thailand. I emailed Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand to explain the sting operation and asked if his rescue centre could take the orangutans after seizure, but he never replied. I was in communications with the Freeland Foundation, based in Bangkok, and they agreed to organize Thai police involvement and collaborate in the sting. They had done this type of thing previously with a slow loris trafficking gang.

I arrived in Bangkok on 16th November, bought a local Thai mobile network SIM card and contacted Tom’s +855 81 number via WhatsApp:

Nick: Hello I am person who asked anxxxxxxxx32 to look for orangutan for adoption

[Next day]

Nick:: Helloooo anybody home?

Tom: Hello sir

Nick: Oh you’re so polite, that’s nice. I’m just so tired going through Noi to agree on getting our lovely new kid. I talked it over with my partner and he is so suspicious and careful he’s like an old lady. Is there anything you can do to make him believe you will give us the baby when we deposit the money? We don’t know you or even where you are. Maybe you will run away with our money. You know there are lots of people who do nasty things like that. I’m not saying you do. I hope you understand. We really want to get Otan as soon as possible, we even bought baby clothes already

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nick: Not really. Yes I know. But we would really look after it like a real child. I googled all kinds of things about what orangutans eat, what kind of diseases they get and all kinds of things. Our house girl will bath it every day. Any advice you have please tell me

Tom: They are easy to take care . but sometimes they could get moody …just like kid.
Tom: Are you now in phuket ?

Nick: We had a cat for a really long time but it ran away. It was really moody. We don’t mind moody. Yes am in Phuket

Tom: I got a good friend in phuket . he’s retired wealthy aussie hippie .may be I should arrange a meeting with him to confirm you and me are legit person .

Nick: Let me ask my partner, he’s a shy guy. Where in Phuket does hippy live? Can we meet him in Patong?

Tom: Let ask if he’s in phuket now . where are you guys from ?

Nick: I’m from Canada my partner is an American. But he is very nice for an American not noisy and pushy like those foul rednecks that support Trump

Tom: Trump is a cancer

Nick: Worse

Tom: Sorry buts no other word .

Nick: Trump hates people like me

Tom: My brother used to study at [name of school] in Vancouver .

[I had never heard of the school, but googled it and replied]:

Nick: Oh wow!! That’s a good art school. Is he doing design? What kind?

Tom: Film director

Nick: Exciting! What kind of films?

Tom: Very indie
Tom: Let me call u tonight , sir

Nick: Best kind. Ok will talk later I have to go out now anyway

Tom: Ok

[Next day]

Nick: Good morning
Nick: Helloooo

Tom: Hello sir
Tom: I have spoken to my friend in phuket but he’s in Dubai now

Nick: Ecuse my delay I was swimming. So what do we do?

Tom: Instagram : XXXXXXXX007 [It was an Instagram account of a very wealthy Thai man who owned a chimpanzee pet. He seemed to be a jet-setter who travelled to Europe and the U.S. with his pretty girlfriend and he owned some very expensive cars. There was no indication on his Instagram or Facebook account of whether he worked or not and there was nothing that suggested he was in the exotic animal business. Maybe Tom had sold him the chimp].

[Next day]

Tom: Hello

Nick: Good morning Tom how are you?

Tom: This afternoon I will send you photos of one boy n one girl for you to decide .
Tom: You have seen that one IG account I sent you last night, Nick ?

Nick: Yes I looked the chimp looked big but nice and he seemed very happy

Tom: Yah . he’s very lucky ape.

Nick: I’m so excited can’t wait to see photos

Tom: Ok.
Tom: Here we go , Sir

Tom sent these:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nick: Incredible!!! When can we see?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom: Balance upon health check at local vet .

Nick: Ok will let you know asap

Tom: Thank you , Sir
Tom: My suggestion is as a couple if you may want to breed them .

Nick: Oh I never thought of that. Another thing to discuss. My partners not here now I’ll see him in a couple of hours but will let you know tonight cause I don’t want them going to China

Tom: Noted

Nick: To save time I’m going to see my partner I know where he is
Nick: I sent him the photos he’s thrilled!

Tom: Ok.

[Tom called me on WhatsApp audio to warn me not to share the photos or discuss what we were doing with anyone. I told him I wouldn’t. He asked me where I came from in Canada, I told him a small town in Alberta. He wanted to know if I would pay the 50% deposit, I said I would ask my partner. I contacted the NYT journalist and asked him what name he wanted to use. He said ‘Jeffrey’. We resumed on WhatsApp text]:

Nick: Don’t worry not sharing or telling ANYBODY

Tom: Thank you

Nick: Am so tired. Jeffrey insists since we don’t have any assurance that the kids would be delivered that he’s only willing to deposit $1000. Or if they are not too far away we could go and take money with us. We see them, pay 50% and see them shipped to Phuket. Sorry he’s very difficult

Tom: Completely understood from your point of view although if the kids are local and native in Thailand then we can do like jeffry said . but they are not local breeded and have to be shipped to Bkk from far away so since this is our first contact it’s not easy for both of us .
Tom: Are you guys looking for one or a couple ?

Nick: We decided on two, depending. Are the girl and boys related? Or different parents? If unrelated we can take girl and boy. This might make them more stable when they get older. Assuming they get along (:

Tom: They are from different parent and not related .
Tom: Let me figure what is the most fairest solutuon for both of us ,Sir .

Nick: Ok take your time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom: I will keep them both for you .

Nick: Thank you tom you are very kind

Tom: My pleasure . i believe you and jeffey will take good care of them .

Nick: Promise

Tom: Hi Nicolas . I have spoken to my breeder on your terms . This is the best thing I can work out with him . he will accept 100,000 THB deposit for one couple of male and female . once they arrived bkk we can go to see the vet together . after the health check you could pay the balance . then you could either take them direct back to phuket or we can arrange shipping for you . please discuss with Jeffry and let me know please .this is the best solution I can come across with him .
Tom: If placing deposit tomorrow you can come to Bkk next Friday for pick up , Sir .

Nick: Deposit is in bank in Bangkok the one you gave before?

Tom: Yes , Sir .

Nick: Tomorrow Sunday will do Monday

Tom: Ok
Tom: Thank you for trusting me

[I did not want to turn over any money to wildlife traffickers for ethical and legal reasons. But previous negotiations with wildlife traffickers always ended at this point. Not a single one would agree to meet for an “inspection” or any other reason I could think of using as a cover story, without money up front first. Without a physical meeting it was impossible to set up a sting.
I discussed it both with my project sponsors and with people at Freeland. Thai baht 100,000 was about USD 2,850. Was it worth that much to put a major wildlife trafficker out of business? When trying to set up the sting in Indonesia I had been in communications with an Indonesian NGO. They had pulled off a sting that netted two traffickers, but it had cost $3,000 in lost deposit money.
Tom said he was coming personally to Bangkok and that we would meet. Freeland assured me that he would be arrested in the veterinarian’s office when the health check was made and the transaction concluded. Tom would be caught red-handed with the orangutan infants and cash payment, open-and-shut case. Jeffrey the NYT journalist would be there to witness and write about the whole affair. I wrote my sponsor that it was “high risk, high gain”. He replied, “Go for it.”]

[Next day]

Tom: Kids are already on the move to Bkk , Sir .

Nick: Fantastic. Where do we meet in Bangkok Friday?

Tom: I will inform you again which doctor my agent will be contacting.
[The ‘doctor’ was the vet who would do the health inspection. We needed to know as early as possible who this would be and where he was located in order to arrange the details of the sting.]

Nick: Ok

Tom: You have to prepare and start buying powder milk and other baby stuffs

Nick: Will do. Any special kind?

Tom: Any baby milk will do the job

[I flew to Phuket so I could deposit the down payment in a Phuket bank, strengthening my cover story.]

[Next day]

Tom: Please do send me your bank deposit slip once payment has being instructed, Sir .

[I haggled more with Tom, trying to get out of making a bank deposit. We’d brought on board a Thai staff member of Freeland, a retired senior Royal Thai Police officer, to act as a contact in Bangkok with a Thai associate of Tom’s, the man in whose bank account I was supposed to make the down payment deposit. I said a ‘friend’ (the Freeland Thai staff member) would leave the 100,000 baht cash at the vet’s office, as we needed to know where it was. Tom was not pleased.]

Tom: Please tell your friend you are not getting baby hamster from a zoo shop.

Nick: Oh Tom I’m so sorry I tried to convince him but he says if deposit left with your vet then no risk to you.

Tom: I understand you friend s idea but also the things is no vet would to get involve in this kind of business .
Tom: How do you want me to proceed , dear Nicolas .
Tom: Seller could disappear with money…no objection but also buyer could reject to take as well. This happend to be few times with Arab peoples.
Tom: I am a good Muslims

[Two more facts learned about Tom, he was not Arab and he was Muslim. This pointed more strongly than ever to him being Indonesian or Malaysian. He also admitted that ‘this kind of business’ was so shady that no veterinarian would get involved in it.]

Nick: I want to be fair of course. I’ve been arguing with my ex friend and Jeffrey about it. We won’t reject if kids are healthy. Even if they have small health problem we can still take if it’s treatable. Are you with kids?

Tom: No , Sir . I don’t have them with me . should I have my agent to call you thai friend and work out somethings ?

Nick: I thought you were coming with them and would meet us in vets office in Bangkok? No?

Tom: Yes ,we will meet .
Tom: But I want to solve the deposit issue at first cuz they are already on the way.
Tom: Otherwise I have to return them back first until things are set .

Nick: My friend said he can talk to your agent but he’d prefer doing tomorrow is that alright? Maybe he can give deposit to him

Tom: Ok

[I received an email from Freeland informing me that they had prepared a confidential report for me containing ‘closed-source and open-source information’ to help me decide on the best course of action. They would give it to me at a meeting we had scheduled in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in a couple of days. Freeland also wanted a screenshot of my communications with Tom to pass on to the Natural Resources Environmental Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police that they could use to open a case file. I sent a few which showed Tom giving the prices and asking for a 50% deposit.]

[Next day]

Nick: Good morning. What number should my friend call? He has agreed to pay the deposit for me. I’m coming to bkk tomorrow

Tom: Ok. Let me get his number for you .
Tom: It’s +66 651xxxxxx.
Tom: His name is Ton

Nick: Ok wonderful. My friend is Kuhn Lee, I’ll pass on number

Tom: Ok
Tom: Jelly fish

Nick: What?
[What did jelly fish mean? Was it some sort of code word, or just a typo? I sent Ton’s number to Freeland’s Thai undercover staff, whom we’re calling Kuhn Lee (Mr. Lee). Lee called Ton’s number and was told that now the ‘kids’ were arriving Sunday, not Friday as previously agreed.]

Nick: Lee said kids arriving Sunday now what happened?

Tom: It’s always five working days after receiving the deposit .
Tom: And we don’t have transport connection everyday .
Tom: Today is Tuesday afternoon and I am still waiting for your deposit .
Tom: Kids were send off Sunday evening but last night I let them stop before crossing border

Nick: I don’t know why Lee didn’t make arrangements to pay deposit with Ton I asked him to do that. Lee is a bit difficult sometimes. Lee says he will give 100,000 cash to Ton after work tomorrow. Could they meet in bkk somewhere? Because kids not coming until Sunday I won’t come until Friday now

Tom: You got the bank account , Sir.

Nick: Ah ok he puts in bank. Ok I’ll tell him

Tom: Thank you

[Now, what to do? I had come to Phuket to establish my cover, but hadn’t had to prove it yet, Tom did not seem concerned where I was. I decided that if a bank deposit had to be made, I might as well do it here in Phuket.]

[Next day]

Nick: Good morning Tom I hope you are doing fine. I decided to deposit the 100,000 baht myself here in Phuket. What day will the kids arrive? I hope soon. You said they were already almost here. I don’t want the kids to suffer too much in a car or whatever. Is someone feeding them properly and giving them water? Can you send a photo so I can see they are alright. Jeffrey wants to see. Thank you

Tom: Hi Nicolas . if receiving your deposit today they should be in bkk on Monday at latest and don’t worry they are all well treated.they stop over near Malaysian border at my courier farm .please notify me once you paid in so I can continue the trip .

Nick: Why does it take so long if they are so close?

Tom: Malaysia Indonesia border

[I looked at a map to reconfirm what I thought – there is no land border between Malaysia and Indonesia, except on Borneo island.]

Nick: There isn’t one what do you mean?
Nick: You mean on Borneo?

Tom: No

Nick: Where else is there a border?

Tom: You are asking typical snooper question .

Nick: Tom I’m not a snooper but you’re saying strange things. I’m not stupid
[I was beginning to worry that this was a deposit scam, not unusual in the nefarious world of wildlife trafficking. Many animal photo ads on e-commerce or social media sites were simply just downloaded from the Internet, the person posting the photo did not actually have the animal. After receiving the deposit, the ‘seller’ was never heard from again.]

Nick: I’m in front of the Patong Bangkok bank right now I can even send you photo. It doesn’t open until 10

Tom: No problem
Tom: It’s just few minutes
Tom: Call me
Tom: Bad signal

Nick: Yes

Tom: There are no land border
Tom: But by boat

Nick: Except in Borneo I know my geography

Tom: Johor baru
[This was at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula opposite Singapore island. The otans must be coming from Borneo or Java, if they were actually passing through Johor Baru.]

Nick: You promise on the Prophet (peace be upon him) that you send kids? You said you’re a good Muslim

Tom: Yes , Sir
Tom: I promise

Nick: Ok thank you Tom I’ll deposit now. I’ll have $17,150 for you in cash in Bangkok. Give me address when you can of where we meet. We will take kids there I’ve arranged transport
Nick: You want cash right?

[I hoped the offer of this much cash would be enough to lure Tom to Bangkok.]

Tom: Ok

Nick: Can we use your cage or we buy one to bring?

Tom: No cage
Tom: They go in basket
Tom: I will arrange for u

Nick: Ok am in bank waiting for person

Tom: Ok

Nick: Here is deposit receipts


Tom: Ok. Thank you .
Tom: No need to worry , Sir . see you on Monday .

Nick: Thank you my friend
[I felt terrible depositing that money for the use of wildlife traffickers, but the thought of putting them out of business gave me the motivation to do it and carry on. The Exoticpet88 gang had captured and sold thousands of endangered animals and birds from at least 2012 up to now, and Tom’s IG account was posting animals for sale again, such as the pair of orangutan infants below. Were these the two ‘kids’ now on their way to Bangkok?]


[I returned to Bangkok and that night met with Freeland people at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. They did not give me the report as promised, which apparently contained useful information, because of reservations held by Khun Lee. I was told they would give me the report when the case was closed. What good would it do me then? This was the first of several seemingly counter-productive and illogical acts by Khun Lee.
The Royal Thai Police were on board and we would hold a strategy session in a couple of days to lay out the detailed roles of each person. Jeffrey had made arrangements to fly to Bangkok on Friday.]

[Next day]

Tom: Expect your kids to be in bkk on Sunday at latest .
Tom: Will update .
Tom: Be prepared so sleepless night ….

Nick: Thank you thank you I was going to contact you tomorrow I didn’t want to hound you. We still meet Monday?

Tom: I think yes
Tom: Let me keep you up to date every evening
Tom: Should be OK

Nick: I’m so excited! I can’t wait. Thank you so much

Tom: Did you bought milk and etc.
Tom: Hot water boiler
Tom: Pampers
Tom: Three or four milk bottles
Tom: They will need the bottles every three or four hours

Nick: Not yet but now you reassured me so we will. I looked at pampers (we call them diapers) but not sure which ones to get

Tom: I will get for you
Tom: They are about 3-4 KGs
Tom: So it new born size

Nick: There are also different formulas for different ages, will buy the ones for 1 year old. Ok for pampers small ones

Tom: Welcome sleepless night …. For the next few months …
Tom: Yes
Tom: I think it’s fine

Nick: Oh dear I hope they don’t cry like human babies

Tom: Not like that…..
Tom: Worse…. Hahaha….
Tom: Just kidding

[I was bonding well with Tom, building trust, he seemed as excited as I was pretending to be about the imminent ‘adoption’ of my new kids.]

Nick: Whew good. NO oh good kidding.

Tom: I always enjoy watching them sleeping

Nick: We can’t wait.

Tom: Yah ….

Nick: Should they sleep in a baby crib or what?

Tom: I know that feeling
Tom: No need
Tom: Mine always use to sleep with me n my wife has n the same bed

[More information about Tom, he owned otans himself and he was married.]

Nick: Really? Ok we’ll try that

Tom: My wife will buy some nice baby dress for your kids .
Tom: They will bond to you and jeffey for the next couple of years

Nick: Oh thank you Tom that’s so kind of you. Jeffrey and I have been talking about what to get you
Nick: We’ll spend lots of time with them and hug them a lot

Tom: No need Sir . me n my wife will come to visit your kids in phuket from time to time .
Tom: Speak you tomorrow .
Tom: Yah ….
Tom: Happy happy

Nick: Ok sleep well
[I had to remind myself that this character was responsible for the capture of innumerable orangutan and gibbon babies in the forests of Southeast Asia and selling them into slavery, not to mention all of the other animals and birds from all over the world that showed up on their IG pages. I wanted to see him behind bars.
Freeland emailed me, they found the Facebook account of the person who owned the bank account I’d deposited the down payment into. They had his address as well.]


[The police had obtained the bank records of the ATM use of the bank account owner and it showed that within 24 hours the entire 100,000 baht had been withdrawn.]

[Next day]

Nick: Hello Tom any news?
Tom: On the way , Sir
Nick: Ok thanks

[Next day]

Tom: Your kids are now at Malaysia/Thailand border waiting for transfer courier
Tom: If lucky then tonight ID not tmr

Nick: Oh my!! Can’t wait!! Thank you Tom!!

Tom: Please book your flight after my confirmation . no need to book in advance , Sir

Nick: ok

Tom: Also you told me you want to take back your kids by yourself ?

Nick: Yes we’ve hired a car and driver in bkk

Tom: Are they any control on the way back to phuket ?
Tom: How many hours drive ?

Nick: Not that I know of but even if there is we can put a blanket over kids. I heard 12 hours

Tom: Ok

[Next day]

Nick: Hello Tom how are things going?

Tom: If my courier can cross border in to Thailand tonight it will arrive Bangkok tomorrow . he is checking if his border officer he work with has got his shift today , Sir . if he can cross he will call me and I will inform you ASAP.

[Aha! Another key bit of info, they had a corrupt Thai border officer working with them, this was common practice with wildlife and other illegal product smugglers.]

Nick: Ok good luck but come soon! Jeffrey is going crazy
[As was I, I had to leave Thailand soon as I had another operation underway on another continent that absolutely required my presence on 30th November. It was now the 27th. Jeffrey and I went to Bangkok Safari World this morning and I introduced him to the orangutan show, in which thin, bedraggled orangutans simulated a rock band, with a bikini-clad go-go dancer, and a boxing show. On the taxi drive out Jeffrey was on the phone with a Congolese army general he was interviewing for a story on Joseph Kabila, the DRC president. The general knew that Kabila kept a pet chimpanzee at his farm outside of Kinshasa, in answer to a question Jeffrey threw in at my prompting.]


[That night we held a strategy session in my hotel room with three Freeland staff – R. and two former senior Thai Royal Police officers (E. and Khun Lee) – a current member of the Natural Resources Environmental Crime Suppression Division (whom Jeffrey dubbed Inspector X), a cameraman to record everything, Jeffrey and myself.]

“Khun Lee” had drawn up an organizational chart of the actors and locations for the strategy meeting, but it made no sense to me and had nothing to do with what we needed to do when the exchange meeting would be held in the vet’s office.

Inspector X, designated to make the arrest, the cameraman and “Khun Lee” in my hotel room.

[Next day]

Nick: Good morning Tom hope you are well. Jeffrey and I are In Bangkok now did it go well at the border?

Tom: Hi . tonight I will arrive thai side . may be my agent can let you video chat with you boy and girl .
Tom: Do you have Skype ID ?

Nick: I don’t have Skype but maybe I could create an account. We can meet tomorrow then?

Tom: Yes , pls create one . tentative arrival is tomorrow morning in bkk .

Nick: So excited can’t wait. So we meet tomorrow we don’t want to stay in Bangkok. What time?

Tom: Tonight my courier will inform when they start departure . where do you stay in bkk ?

Nick: We’re in sukhumvit

Tom: Ok

Nick: Nana area

Tom: You can send me your address and location my courier will come to see you there and bring the kids .

Nick: You said we meet to get health check

Tom: Yes , he will take you to see the vet together .

Nick: So he doesn’t bring kids here? Don’t think we can bring into hotel

Tom: No problem . can go in with baskets . which hotel is it ?

Nick: [name of hotel]

Tom: Oh …they got nice congee.
Tom: It’s next to soi nana .

Nick: Haha! Yes I tried it. This morning I had nasi goreng

Tom: Great . so late late tonight I will update , Sir .

Nick: Wonderful we await your call with baited breath

Tom: Waiting for courier

Nick: Oh where are they?

Tom: Hatyai
[This was disappointing as Hat Yai was only just across the Malaysian border in southern Thailand.]

Nick: So far! So we meet tomorrow

[Tom sent this photo now. The date and time were correct]:


Tom: Hi . my local courier just tried to contact you on your mobile .
Tom: What’s your room number , Sir . he wanted to stop by and explain you how to meet and how to take care of your kids .

Nick: Am out to dinner with Jeffrey will be back at hotel in about an hour

Tom: Ok, let know when you are back . what’s your room number ?
[I couldn’t give him my room number as then he could check the name of the occupant and discover my real identity.]

Nick: We meet in lobby not room

Tom: Ok
Tom: Is it possible to have noi coordinate with my man because his English is not good .
Tom: My agent
[Tom sent a photo of his agent. He didn’t look Thai, more Central Asian or Middle Easterner.]

Nick: Noi is not here we’ll just meet him now in Hxxxxxxx bar we’re there
Nick: He goes into lobby and take elevator to B level

Tom: Let contact him again , Sir . he said he went to front desk and asking for Mr. Nicolas Shies but they couldn’t find you on the check in database so he left .

Nick: Well we are here. My name is not Schies
Nick: Or shies
[I had scribbled a fake name on the bank deposit slip.]

Tom: Ok. It was shown on the paying slip so I told him to ask for you sir .
Tom: Your kids will leave tonight around midnight and will probably get in late afternoon , Sir .
Tom: You brought milk and other stuffs or should he buy for you ?

Nick: Is the courier coming?
Nick: He doesn’t need to do anything
[Tom was trying to establish what we looked like and if we were real before making the delivery meet.]

Tom: I am trying to call him now
Tom: I couldn’t get through his number so I think he is on the way back home .if you don’t see him at the lobby waiting then tomorrow.
Tom: When kids arrive I will notify you , Sir .

Nick: Ok we wanted to buy him a beer

Tom: Haha very kind . I will have some beers in phuket soon with you two . havent been there for so long .
Tom: In fact hatyai is on your way back to phuket , isn’t ?

[Tom called now at 10;30 p.m. by normal mobile phone service and asked me if I wanted the kids delivered to Phuket. I said that Jeffrey and I were in Bangkok now and we had a car and driver already booked, plus we wanted the kids’ health cleared by a vet before paying the balance and taking delivery. I asked if Tom was going to meet us in the morning at the vet’s office with the kids. He said Ton his agent would get hold of us in the morning with instructions.
It was after 11 p.m. on 28th November, I had to leave the next night to go where I needed to be on the 30th. Jeffrey and I discussed it in the hotel bar, wondering if Tom’s agent wasn’t still around. I went to Thailand thinking that the exchange meet could be made on the 18th. Ten days later it looked like I would not be part of the sting. Jeffrey had to leave the night of 1st December to be at a Bar Mitzvah in Chicago, his home town, on 3rd December. I sent Tom another WhatsApp message.]

Nick: Tom I’ve been talking this over with Jeffrey and we decided you’re playing games with us. You keep changing the story. We have to meet tomorrow and take the kids. We have the money so let’s just do this
[No reply. At 11;30 p.m. I sent another message.]
Nick: Tom can we talk?
[No reply]

[Next day, 29 November]

[I called Tom’s number in the morning, no reply. I had to leave that night so decided that it was too late for me to take any active part. I informed Freeland that they should try to conclude the sting either today or on the 30th with Jeffrey in the vet’s office, as originally agreed. I turned over my Thailand SIM card to Freeland for them to continue using it for communications with Tom, which of course could only be text messages. That afternoon I received an email from R. my contact at Freeland:

Hi Xxxx,

Just wanted to let you know they we will actively pursue the case through Mr. Lee. We hope the fish will take the bait and we have a successful resolution to this case.

Will keep you updated with all ongoings.

Kind regards,

R.

I replied that I was still keenly interested in the case and would be willing to help out any way that I could, and for them to keep me updated.

A few hours later I was in a plane flying to Africa, hoping that Freeland could pull off the sting with Jeffrey present.]

End of Part II

Indonesian traffickers’ transaction method of selling illegal wildlife: Rekber

PEGAS has been monitoring online social media accounts for over three years, finding wildlife dealers who sell great apes captured in their forest habitats to the highest bidder. Dealers in Indonesia are amongst the most active of these ape traffickers, especially of the lesser apes (gibbons and siamangs).

The Facebook or Instagram posts of Indonesians are always in Bahasa Indonesia, the local language. PEGAS struggles with Google Translate to try to figure out what they are saying. One word, even in very short comments, keeps recurring when an animal is offered for sale: ‘rekber’, often with the word ‘wajib’. ‘Wajib’ is translated as ‘required’, but no translation could be found for ‘rekber’.

Here are many examples of both adverts and transaction instructions:

The fact that business PIN numbers are almost always given by dealers indicates that CITES Appendix I species – supposedly protected from commercial trade – are being trafficked with a veneer of legality.

 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
One day PEGAS got lucky when a big Indonesian wildlife trafficker gave a short tutorial on what ‘rekber’ meant and how it operated. The word is an abbreviation of ‘rekoning bersama’, which means ‘joint account’. There are several private rekber services comprised of individuals or companies that have set up bank accounts to act as escrow services. They make money by charging a service fee for the financial transaction (e.g. RekBer CeperzBank, ceperzbank.com; RekBer IndoBank, http://www.rekberindobank.info; MangRekBer, http://www.mangrekber.com).

Here is how it works: the dealer and buyer agree on a price, for example, for two orangutan infants, let’s say Rupiah 140 million (~USD 10,000). They go to an online Rekber service. The service cannot release funds to the seller (i.e. dealer) until the buyer gives the thumbs up. Then, (1) the seller deposits the agreed price into the account, (2) the service informs the seller that the funds are there, (3) the dealer ships the orangutans, (4) the buyer informs the service that he has received what he paid for and (5) the service releases the funds to the dealer.

A schematic diagram showing how RekBer works

So Indonesian banks are facilitating illegal wildlife trade, albeit without direct knowledge of what is being traded. These services are not registered as banks, which means that they operate largely on trust between the buyer and seller and the service entity. Regulatory steps need to be taken to ensure that Rekber services are not used for trade in illegal commodities, or for illicit financial flows in the form of tax evasion and money laundering.

Facial Recognition: a new tool in great ape illegal trade investigations

PEGAS has identified and was until recently monitoring over 125 social media sites that have posted 315 individual great apes (a minimum number) either for sale or already purchased. In addition, PEGAS has visited zoos and safari parks in several Middle Eastern and eastern Asian countries that are exploiting hundreds of great apes commercially, ranging in age from infants to old adults. They act as fee-paying photo props with visitors, entertainment performers or as simple zoo attractions when they get older.

From sale online great apes are exploited for many commercial purposes

Photo props when young

Entertainer when a juvenile

Caged up when older, which can last 40 years

All of the great apes online and a high proportion of those seen in the zoos and safari parks were obtained illegally, many stolen from the wild. All of them have been moved from point A to point B, and many have been moved to point C and D and beyond, as they are bought and sold for various money-making purposes. These apes suffer tremendously in these callous moves, which are done in part to cover up the fact that they were imported illegally into the destination country by the first buyer. The second or third buyer can show sales records to the authorities, but when asked for CITES, Customs or veterinary import documents, they just say, “Go talk to the importer”. That’s where it usually stops, as the authorities do not have the time or resources to go find the importers.

If these great apes could be positively identified by some simple, non-invasive technology, that could be the breakthrough that wildlife trade investigators have been dreaming of. Identification using DNA or microchips has proven too difficult and expensive to carry out on a large scale. An ape facial photograph, akin to a police mug shot, could be the solution.

Wildlife dealers and owners post thousands of photos of great apes, most of them recurrences of the same ape. They are seen on multiple accounts as they are shared. It is not easy to determine if the same individual ape is posted on multiple accounts, unless the photos are identical duplicates. A facial recognition tool would enable the positive identification of each individual, as long as the face was showing at a good angle.

Are these the same or different chimps?

 

If we can positively identify an individual ape from its photo, it will be possible to track apes from seller to buyer online, and even from seller to buyer in zoos and safari parks, if the seller posted online the photo of that individual. It will also be possible to track movements of apes in zoos and safari parks, which may signal illegal arrivals, departures and replacements. This technology could even be used for prosecutions, depending on its accuracy.

Dr. Anil Jain, distinguished biometrics professor at Michigan State University, and his team modified their human facial recognition system to create LemurFaceID, the first computer facial recognition system that correctly identified more than 100 individual lemurs with 98.7 percent accuracy.

“Like humans, lemurs have unique facial characteristics that can be recognized by this system,” Jain said. “Once optimized, LemurFaceID can assist with long-term research of endangered species by providing a rapid, cost-effective and accurate method for identification.”

Dr. Jain and postgraduate student Debayan Deb have volunteered to adapt the LemurFaceID methodology to chimpanzee faces. If that proves successful, PEGAS hopes that they can repeat it with an orangutan face ID application in future.

PEGAS is now working with dedicated wildlife conservationist Alexandra Russo, who has generously volunteered to lead the development of the ChimpFaceID initiative. Using a more advanced method than was used with the lemurs, titled PrimNet, based on Convolution Neural Network (CNN) architecture, the Michigan State team will analyze and test their technology on hundreds of chimp face photos that we are now collecting in collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute, members of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance and others.

“I have brought together volunteers working at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, at Tchimpounga in the Congo, Tacugama in Sierra Leone and in the USA at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington State and Save the Chimps in Florida to provide the photos,” said Alexandra Russo, nicknamed Allie.

Allie went on to say, “The Max Planck Institute provided photos for an initial test of the PrimNet system, but it needs to be further tested and perfected to achieve a higher rate of correct identifications.”

Although still in its initial stages, several organizations have shown interest in PrimNet for use in illegal wildlife trade investigations and for monitoring of great ape population numbers and distribution in the wild. We hope to be able to present an exposition of the application’s potential as part of Bio-Bridge Initiative at the 14th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Egypt in November 2018.

If the PrimNet technology works to the high 90s percent accuracy, investigators might one day be able to track an infant ape captured in the forests of Africa or Asia to a dealer selling it online in the home country to a dealer in the destination country and even on to the buyer. The photos, along with other evidence gathered in the course of investigations, could be used to arrest and prosecute the dealers, facilitators and even the buyer.

One day we may be able to positively identify chimp faces at point of origin, to dealer, to buyer.

Smuggled, Beaten and Drugged: The Illicit Global Ape Trade

This will be the last post for this year, maybe forever. The PEGAS project has run its course, in fact it has run beyond its initial 3-year time frame. If additional funding is secured the project will continue.

This article on great ape trafficking and the project’s work just appeared in The New York Times .

The New York Times tracked international ape smugglers from Congolese rain forests to the back streets of Bangkok. Here is what unfolded.

By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN NOV. 4, 2017

MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The sting began, as so many things do these days, on social media.

Daniel Stiles, a self-styled ape trafficking detective in Kenya, had been scouring Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp for weeks, looking for pictures of gorillas, chimps or orangutans. He was hoping to chip away at an illicit global trade that has captured or killed tens of thousands of apes and pushed some endangered species to the brink of extinction.

“The way they do business,” he said of ape traffickers, “makes the Mafia look like amateurs.”

After hundreds of searches, Mr. Stiles found an Instagram account offering dozens of rare animals for sale, including baby chimpanzees and orangutans dressed in children’s clothes. He sent an email to an address on the account — “looking for young otans” (the industry standard slang for orangutans) — and several days later received a reply.

“2 babies, 7.5k each. Special introductory price.”

The trafficker identified himself only as Tom and said he was based in Southeast Asia. Mr. Stiles knew what Tom was hoping for: to sell the infant orangutans to a private collector or unscrupulous zoo, where they are often beaten or drugged into submission and used for entertainment like mindlessly banging on drums or boxing one another. Such ape shows are a growing business in Southeast Asia, despite international regulations that prohibit trafficking in endangered apes.

Several weeks later, after a few more rounds of text messages with Tom to firm up the details, Mr. Stiles decided to fly to Bangkok.

“I was way out on a limb,” Mr. Stiles admitted later. But he was eager to bring down Tom, who indicated that he could find orangutans and chimps with only a few days’ notice, the mark of a major dealer.

Employees of the reserve, Lola Ya Bonobo, with young rescued bonobos in its nursery.
Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

‘Endgame Conservation’

Ape trafficking is a little-known corner of the illicit wildlife trade, a global criminal enterprise that hauls in billions of dollars. But unlike the thriving business in elephant ivory, rhino horns, tiger bone wine or pangolin scales, ape smuggling involves live animals — some of the most endangered, intelligent and sensitive animals on Earth.

Mr. Stiles, 72, grew intrigued by apes decades ago as a graduate student in anthropology. Since then, he has plunged deeper and deeper into the ape world, becoming the lead author of “Stolen Apes,” a report published by the United Nations in 2013 that was considered one of the first comprehensive attempts to document the underground ape trade. He and the other researchers estimated that the smuggling had claimed more than 22,000 apes — either trafficked or killed.

Malnourished and terrified apes have been seized across the world, in undercover busts or at border checkpoints, in countries as varied as France, Nepal, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kuwait. Two years ago, at Cairo’s international airport, the Egyptian authorities discovered a baby chimp curled up into a ball and stashed in a piece of hand luggage. Just this summer, the authorities in Cameroon stopped a smuggler at a roadblock who was trying to move 100 pounds of pangolin scales and a tiny chimp, not even a month old, hidden in a plastic sack.

But for every successful bust, wildlife specialists say, five to 10 other animals slip through. And for every smuggled ape, several more may have been killed in the process. Most species of apes are social and live in large groups, and poachers often wipe out entire families to get their hands on a single infant, which is far easier to smuggle.

“Transporting an adult chimp is like transporting a crate of dynamite,” said Doug Cress, who until recently was the head of the Great Apes Survival Partnership, a United Nations program to help great apes. “The adults are extremely aggressive and dangerous. That’s why everyone wants a baby.”

Wildlife researchers say that a secret ape pipeline runs from the lush forests of central Africa and Southeast Asia, through loosely policed ports in the developing world, terminating in wealthy homes and unscrupulous zoos thousands of miles away. The pipeline, documents show, is lubricated by corrupt officials (several have been arrested for falsifying export permits) and run by transnational criminal gangs that have recently drawn the attention of Interpol, the international law enforcement network.

Apes are big business — a gorilla baby can cost as much as $250,000 — but who exactly is buying these animals is often as opaque as the traffickers’ identity. Many times, researchers say, they can only begin to track where the apes have ended up by stumbling across the Facebook posts and YouTube videos of rich pet collectors.

A bushmeat market along the Congo River. Many endangered apes disappear each year into the trade of bushmeat, a source of protein. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Wildlife officials said that a handful of Western businessmen had also been arrested. But the majority of recent busts, they added, have been in Africa or Southeast Asia, usually of low-level traffickers or poorly paid underlings, not the bosses who control underground exports and travel abroad to make deals.

For years wildlife officials suspected that a mysterious American known simply as “Joe” was running a large trafficking ring out of Thailand, one of the world hubs for smuggled apes. According to “Tom,” the trafficker Mr. Stiles discovered, “Joe” had recently retired.

And it’s not as if smuggling is the only threat apes face. The world’s hunger for biofuels and palm oil — a cheap food product used in things like lipstick, instant noodles and Oreos — is leveling tropical rain forests and turning them into farms.

According to the Arcus Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies apes, Indonesia and Malaysia have tripled their palm oil production in the past 15 years, wiping out the habitats of thousands of orangutans. In Africa, it’s the same, with new rubber plantations, new roads and new farms cutting deeply into gorilla areas. One species, the Cross River gorilla, is now so endangered that scientists think there are only 200 or 300 left.

“In living memory, there were millions of apes,” said Ian Redmond, a well-known primatologist. “Now, there’s just a few hundred thousand and falling.”

“What we’re looking at,” he added, “is endgame conservation.”

The Apes’ World

Most apes, which include gorillas, gibbons, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos, live deep in the rain forest. The Basankusu region of Congo, lying along a tributary of the legendary Congo River, is one of the last bonobo refuges and a source of many trafficked apes.

It’s not easy getting here. We flew from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, to Mbandaka, a river town where 50-foot dugout canoes arrive every morning, edging into shore crammed with products of the forest: onions, eggplants, buckets of red-skinned peanuts, dead pangolins, dead turtles, dead monkeys and, occasionally, live apes.

From Mbandaka, we hired a canoe and motored upriver, our long, narrow boat slicing through the tannin-rich water like a pencil. We made it to the bonobo habitat, amazed to see wild bonobos quietly staring down at us from the highest branches of the trees.

“They have consciousness, empathy and understanding,” said Jef Dupain, an ape specialist for the African Wildlife Foundation. “One day we will wonder how did we ever come up with the idea to keep them in cages.”

In central African towns (as elsewhere in the world), many chimpanzees are kept as pets. Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, who lives in a riverside mansion in Kinshasa, the capital, has a large chimp locked up in a cage. At the Hotel Benghazi in Mbandaka, the owner had kept a muscular mascot for years: Antoine, a large male chimp who scraped an empty soda bottle against the iron bars of his garbage-strewn cage, like an inmate. (Antoine escaped in January and, after sowing disorder in Mbandaka, was hunted down by police officers, shot 10 times and left dead on a city street.)

Antoine, a captive chimpanzee at a hotel in Mbandaka, Congo. He escaped in January and was shot by the police.
Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

As one leaves the towns and travels into the thick forests, the use of apes changes. Out here, as in remote parts of Southeast Asia, where many people are poor and desperate for protein, apes are also food.

Jonas Mange, who now works on education projects for the African Wildlife Foundation, used to hunt bonobos in Congo, venturing into the shadowy recesses of the forest and laying snares made from loops of twisted wire. If he discovered an adult bonobo in one of his traps, he would quickly shoot it with a shotgun and sell the meat, usually for a few dollars per carcass, if that.

But a baby was different, he said. There was a specific market for infant apes, so he would sell them alive, for at least $10 each, to local traders who would then smuggle them to Kinshasa and sell them to foreigners for many times that amount.

“Bonobos are clever,” Mr. Mange said. If they get their feet stuck in a trap, they don’t screech wildly in panic, like pigs or other animals, which would reveal their location to the hunters. Instead, he said, bonobos quietly try to untangle the snare without being detected.

In Boende, a small town up another tributary of the Congo River, three hunters were recently caught with bonobo carcasses and sentenced to several years in a stifling colonial-era prison. The men said they were simply trying to feed their families by selling bonobo meat. But poaching an ape is a serious crime in Congo, and nonprofit wildlife groups have been assisting the Congolese authorities in prosecuting offenders.

“There is a culture here to eat meat, meat from the forest,” said the town’s prosecutor, Willy Ndjoko Kesidi. “Me, I like fish.”

Mr. Kesidi expressed some sympathy for the hunters he had just jailed, saying that the prison where they were housed was a horrible place where many prisoners had died.

“If you spend a lot of time in there,” Mr. Kesidi said, “the color of your skin changes.”

Men suspected of poaching bonobos, handcuffed together at a prison in Boende, Congo. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

The Sting

For years, Mr. Stiles has performed undercover research on wildlife trafficking across Africa, but recently his work has taken him off the continent. A big, freckled, gregarious man, he favors wearing baggy shorts and wrinkled safari shirts. He has also invented several false online identities, with webpages that depict him as an active buyer of rare animals.

Many illegal wildlife transactions start online, specifically through Instagram or WhatsApp. Mr. Stiles has made several trips to the United Arab Emirates, which he considers a new hub for the illegal online wildlife business. Dealers in the Middle East have posted many pictures of apes for sale, sometimes advertising them as friendly pets for children.

Disturbing stories often lie behind those pictures. Many chimps have been drugged with muscle relaxers or alcohol to make them easier to handle. Some are trained to smoke cigarettes and guzzle beer.

Orangutans are gentler than chimps, but still, they are not always gentle, and investigators say zoo trainers sometimes beat them with lead pipes wrapped in rolled-up newspapers to force them to perform tricks. Several years ago, the Indonesian police rescued a female orangutan who had been shaved and was being used as a prostitute at a brothel.

“Even if we can rescue them, it’s very difficult reintroducing them to the wild,” said Mr. Cress, the former head of the United Nations Great Apes program. “They’re all goofed up. They need serious rehab. The ones who have been given alcohol, their hands shake. They have the same withdrawal symptoms we do.”

International wildlife regulations prohibit the trade of endangered apes for commercial purposes. While zoos and other educational institutions are allowed to acquire apes, they need permits showing, among other things, that the apes were bred in captivity, not captured in the wild. (All great ape species are endangered; most gibbons species are as well.)

It’s relatively easy to falsify permits, though, and wildlife investigators have tracked illegally sold apes to Iraq, China, Dubai and Bangkok’s Safari World zoo, where orangutans have been trained to wear boxing gloves and spar with each other to howls of laughter.

Safari World was outed more than 10 years ago for using orangutans that had been smuggled from Indonesian jungles. Dozens of animals were seized from the park and flown home, where the wife of Indonesia’s president welcomed them.

But the boxing shows continue, with a new set of animals, despite an outcry from wildlife groups. Safari World executives said that none of their animals were abused and that the orangutans were fed “human-grade fruits” and lived in air-conditioned rooms.

They also said it wasn’t their fault that the authorities had discovered that some of their orangutans had been improperly acquired from Indonesia. Safari World said it relied on third-party suppliers, and the zoo insisted that most of its apes had been born in Thailand.

“When you come to our park,” said Litti Kewkacha, its executive vice president, “you will only see smiles on our orangutans.”

Constantly on the lookout for mistreated apes, wildlife activists have been frustrated with some celebrities as well. Last year, the United Nations program, Grasp, publicly chastised Paris Hilton for circulating pictures of herself cuddling an infant orangutan dressed in baby clothes. Saying that “apes are neither playthings nor pets,” it called Ms. Hilton’s behavior “appalling.”

To arrange his orangutan sting, Mr. Stiles checked into the Landmark hotel in Bangkok. From a quiet room overlooking clogged arteries of traffic, he began sending the wildlife trafficker Tom messages on WhatsApp.

Daniel Stiles, a self-styled ape detective who lives in Kenya.
Credit Georgina Goodwin for The New York Times

Mr. Stiles knew it was dangerous to flirt with a known smuggler. So he brought his investigation to Freeland, a nonprofit group that combats wildlife and human trafficking from a large office in central Bangkok. Freeland works in secrecy, with undercover agents based in a sealed room that other employees are not allowed to enter. It also works closely with the Thai police services, including one cheerful undercover officer who goes by the name Inspector X.

Over the next few days, with Inspector X and other agents lurking in his high-rise hotel room, Mr. Stiles exchanged more WhatsApp messages with Tom, trying to arrange a meet-up. A couple of times, they even talked on the phone. Tom’s real identity remained a mystery. He had a Malaysian or Indonesian accent, spoke English fluently and was never at a loss for words.

“Oh man, you’re going to have some fun,” Tom said about the orangutan babies. “Getting ready for some sleepless nights?”

In late December, the day of the meet-up, Inspector X and the other Thai agents staked out the appointed location — a supermarket parking lot in central Bangkok. A taxi pulled up.

Inspector X and the agents pounced, arresting the driver and discovering two baby orangutans in the back seat, clutching each other. They appeared scared but healthy, and have since been sent to a Thai wildlife sanctuary. But Tom was nowhere to be found.

Mr. Stiles was overjoyed that the orangutans were rescued, but he was frustrated, too. “We got to get to the dealers,” he said.

Since the sting, he has been back on Instagram, looking for more apes. And more Toms.

Social Media Slave Trade – a PEGAS update

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These are just some of the emojis PEGAS sees in great ape pet posts on Instagram, accompanied by comments such as, “I want a monkey [sic]”, “I love these guys”, “Where can I get one”, and so on.

Instagram users show their approval of a post with emojis

Instagram users show their approval of a post with emojis

Well-meaning posts of loved pets’ photos, especially when made by influential people, unwittingly stimulate others to emulate them by acquiring their own pet, usually through illegal trade.

2-hilton-8-5-15-copy

Paris Hilton and a famous footballer shown with great ape pets serve to stimulate the illegal pet trade

Paris Hilton and a famous footballer shown with great ape pets serve to stimulate the illegal pet trade

Showing children with great ape pets drives the trade, as both parents and children who see the posts will get the idea that it acceptable, even desirable, to acquire a chimpanzee or orangutan baby pet.

Children increasingly are driving the great ape pet trade

Children increasingly are driving the great ape pet trade

pet3 pet4 pet5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

pet7

 

 

Other posts are more insidious, with “For sale?” being common. The question is often answered instructing the potential buyer to communicate through a WhatsApp number or direct messaging. Occasionally, actual prices will be given in plain view of any observer.

3 3-price 4

Some posts openly show the selling of great apes, even sometimes showing the prices

Some posts openly show the selling of great apes, even sometimes showing the prices

Some posts might even promote others going into the business, as they show dealers with expensive cars and nice houses.

Posts of traffickers with expensive cars can encourage others to go into the trade

Posts of traffickers with expensive cars can encourage others to go into the trade

Many posts create the impression that the ape is having a wonderful time and is enjoying its role as a pet, but other posts capture the reality, the despair and loneliness that the ape experiences, and its end destination when it ceases to be cute and cuddly – a cage.

6-copy 6-14-7-15-for-sale-copy

Some posts capture the look of despair on the apes

Some posts capture the look of despair on the apes

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While others show where they end up - in cages

While others show where they end up – in cages

The development of the Internet and access to hundreds of millions of new users in recent years, coupled with social media platforms and the ability to create closed groups and private accounts, has resulted in the burgeoning ability of live animal suppliers, middlemen dealers and buyers to engage in active illegal trading of protected species. The markets can be much larger than physical markets, because thousands of group members located in many countries can be involved. For example, TRAFFIC documented 70,000 members affiliated to just 14 groups on Facebook in one country selling a wide variety of CITES Appendix I animals.

PEGAS began monitoring social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook in March 2015, after reading a Zoo News blog about a wildlife trafficker using social media to sell exotic animals in the UAE.

Starting with that one trafficker, PEGAS checked out the Instagram followers, Facebook friends and people making comments to posts to establish an ever-widening network of fellow animal dealers, and those buying them as pets and prestige display trophies. There is nothing like driving around the streets of Dubai or Doha with a chimpanzee kitted out in designer clothes and sunglasses to make a statement: “Look at me, I’m cool.”

Owners commonly flaunt their expensive pets by driving around with them

Owners commonly flaunt their expensive pets by driving around with them

Even with their children

Even with their children

A few months later Patricia Tricorache of the Cheetah Conservation Fund contacted PEGAS and provided a wealth of additional information regarding online exotic animal trading. The CCF and PEGAS have been collaborating since then, building up a cheetah and great ape database of online wildlife trafficking. We see many other endangered species being trafficked as well in the course of our investigations. More recently, Alexandra Russo volunteered to help and she has found several new great ape and cheetah social media dealers.

Methodology

PEGAS conducted an update count of the individual great apes that it has seen posted on Instagram and Facebook accounts as of early January, 2017. Only those apes that were in the possession of the person posting were counted. Many exotic pet dealers and owners know each other and reposts of their respective photos on two or more other account sites are common. Care was taken to count only the ape in the original account photo or video. Some great apes are pets that owners have posted many times, sometimes over the course of two or three years. PEGAS recorded the names of the pets and took care not to count the same ape more than once. In addition, some people have more than one Instagram or Facebook account and post great ape photos and videos on them all. For example, PEGAS has seen the exact same post on up to ten different accounts, due both to repostings by the same person on different accounts they own, and/or by friends or followers on their respective accounts.

To complicate matters, some people have closed accounts – or had them closed by Zuckerberg’s people after complaints about illegal trading and/or abusive posts – and opened new accounts. PEGAS has found some, but not all, of the new accounts (if new accounts were created). Care must be taken not to count new sites of already counted traffickers as different ones. For example, @dubai.tiger closed down and reopened as @uae.tiger. This should be counted as one dealer, not two. The two sites have posted the same chimpanzees and orangutan, PEGAS tried to identify them and count each only once. The fact that owners usually put the apes in children’s clothes helps with identification, particularly with reposts. PEGAS has even seen dealers repost great apes from another account and offer them for sale. It is unknown whether these were scam sales offerings or were done with the owner’s knowledge and permission.

This chimpanzee belonged to someone in the UAE, but a dealer in Indonesia put it up for sale. Did the owner know?

This chimpanzee belonged to someone in the UAE and this photo was posted on his site, but a dealer in Indonesia put it up for sale with a repost on his site. Did the owner know?

PEGAS classed accounts as dealers (D) or owners only (O). Some dealers are also great ape pet owners (D/O). PEGAS was surprised to see cases in which dealers would sell great apes that they had named and kept as pets for themselves or their children for several months, and for whom they had shown great affection.

This dealer kept these four chimpanzees for weeks, showing great affection for them, then sold off three of them

This dealer kept these four chimpanzees for weeks, showing great affection for them, then sold off three of them

Traffickers also made reposts from sites not engaged in trade, whether to mislead investigators or just for fun is not known. Traffickers posted great apes from International Animal Rescue, from various sanctuaries, from zoos and safari parks, from animal-theme websites, and even of Koko the gorilla. Most exotic animal dealers know now that a number of investigators are watching them. One dealer in particular has started doing this fairly recently, along with making reposts of his posts made originally two or three years ago. PEGAS thinks he is doing this to confuse the watchers.

In spite of trying to take care to avoid the methodological pitfalls described above, the figures presented should be considered as plus or minus about 10 percent, as a certain amount of guesswork was involved in deciding whether a post was a repost of the same ape, or which account was the actual original account making the photo/video post. This type of work is enormously time-consuming and further work is needed to figure out who actually owns each account and who first posted each ape seen. Few Instagram accounts provide the name of the owner and some Facebook accounts have fake names or nicknames.

The posts go back to 2011, but the great majority have been made since 2014. 

Results

PEGAS has been monitoring social media accounts in thirteen countries. PEGAS knows of other countries where online dealers are based, but time is not available to extend to them. In fact, PEGAS does not have the time to monitor properly the thirteen it is currently looking at.

The most active region for great ape trafficking is the Middle East, followed by Southeast Asia. Africa is not well represented because they rarely post photos of great apes on personal accounts, knowing that their sale is illegal and that there are investigators watching their accounts. For whatever reason, African dealers do not seem to use Instagram as much as the other dealers do, preferring Facebook. There may well be closed member Facebook groups where dealing takes place that PEGAS hasn’t found yet.

Thus far, approximately 94 individuals have been found posting photos of great apes that they have at one time possessed personally. Of these, 51 are dealers and 43 are owners only, and 7 are both. It should be understood that even the owners only are also engaged in great ape trafficking, as it takes two to tango, so to speak. Trafficking consists of a seller and a buyer. Both are engaged in illegal trade (although the CITES Secretariat made an exception for China in one infamous trafficking case involving up to 150 great apes). The actual names and contacts are known for 45-50 of these.

The 94 individuals posted approximately 162 chimpanzees and 88 orangutans that they held in their possession, 250 in all. Although photos were seen of bonobos and gorillas, none of them appeared to be in the possession of the person posting them. A few of the dealers were either known or suspected of dealing in bonobos or gorillas from other sources, but the social media sites have not offered evidence to date.

Many of the dealers and owners know each other, and a few tight networks have been unearthed. For example, the principle supplier of Asian species to a large Gulf exotic pet operation was found in Indonesia. There is much more research to be done to work out the networks of suppliers, middlemen and buyers.

Discussion

The 250 great apes seen in the thirteen countries is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many accounts and groups that have not been fully researched or even found yet. Some of the more active dealers, particularly in Southeast Asia, remove the posts from their accounts after the animals have been sold. So if an investigator does not monitor the account for the days or weeks that it is up for sale, it will not be seen.

There is also the problem of law enforcement. Even when the names and contacts of traffickers are known and reported to the relevant authorities, with copies of the incriminating posts, they will not take action. They claim it is too much work to gain a conviction and they have higher priorities. Some NGOs and individuals campaign to have the social media sites closed down, but that can be counter-productive as the trafficker then simply establishes a new site and increases his security settings and is much more careful about whom he lets gain access to it. Shutting down an account does not stop the trafficking.

About the only way to be sure of law enforcement is to set up a sting, as occurred in Thailand last December. The police were involved at the outset and there was close cooperation between the person setting up the operation, the police and the collaborating local NGO. This is expensive and can take months of work to achieve. Until laws are in place to make it easier for the police and legal system to arrest and convict traffickers on the basis of posts alone, the undercover sting will remain the only option.

It took weeks of undercover work to set up the sting

It took weeks of undercover work to set up the sting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the work and expense paid off with the arrest of a trafficker. The basket carrying the two babies can be seen in the lower left

But the work and expense paid off with the arrest of a trafficker. The basket carrying the two babies can be seen in the lower left

 

A Thai police photo of the captured infants

A Thai police photo of the rescued infants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
If one considers how many great apes were killed during the capture of the infants and how many infants would have died during transport, the 250 successfully smuggled great apes probably represent about 2,000 killed.

PEGAS attends the joint IPS/ASP Congress in Chicago, 21-28 August 2016

Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo hosted the 26th Congress of the International Primatological Society jointly with the 39th meeting of the American Society of Primatologists. This Joint Meeting marked the 20th anniversary since the most recent joint IPS/ASP meeting and was the first to be hosted by a zoological park.

PEGAS submitted an abstract of a presentation entitled ‘Illegal Great Ape Trade Persists for Use as Pets and for Stocking New and Expanding Safari Parks and Private Zoos’. It was accepted for presentation in the prestigious President’s Forum, whose theme was ‘The Global Primate Pet Trade; How Can Primatologists Working in Habitat Countries Reduce the Threat’.

1

PEGAS’s presentation gave a short history of great ape trade and how the nature of it had changed significantly since the early 20th century. Great apes were captured in the wild up to the 1970s for use in biomedical and cognitive research, to stock zoos and circuses, and to perform in television and film.

2

The PEGAS Project Manager presents a history of great ape trade

The early importers of great apes captured in the wild, mainly Europe, the Americas and Australia, stopped the practice in the late 1970s. Because there were no national laws against it, and CITES did not exist until 1975, these early imports were by default legal.

A new type of great ape trade came to the attention of CITES in the 1980s. Great apes were now supposedly protected from international commercial trade by a CITES Appendix I listing. Parties to the Convention were obligated to adopt national laws in conformance with CITES regulations. However, reports began coming in to CITES, both in the Trade Database of “legal” trades and in seizures, that suggested that there was demand for live great apes in various countries.

The increase in public interest for great ape pets was possibly stimulated by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, adopting a pet chimpanzee he named Bubbles. MJ took Bubbles on tour with him around the world in 1988 and in the 1990s was seen with him everywhere, which generated a huge amount of media coverage.

3

Did the King of Pop inadvertently spark interest in status-seekers buying chimpanzees as pets?

In the following decade and up until recently, many celebrities have been pictured with ape pets. Did this motivate wealthy status-seekers in the Middle East and elsewhere to want chimpanzee pets?

4

Numerous celebrities have been pictured in the media with cute chimpanzees, further stimulating demand.

The illegal trade and its more organized nature emerged in the 1990s with a woman of dual Egyptian-Nigerian nationality, working with family members and an Egyptian doctor. They organized infant chimpanzee and gorilla captures in West and Central Africa for smuggling to Egypt. In 1997 the World Society for the Protection of Animals published the results of their investigation into this operation. They found that Kano in northern Nigeria was the centre of this woman’s trafficking, along with other wildlife traffickers based in Kano. They were capturing wild animals in Nigeria and neighbouring countries and shipping them out to multiple destinations.

Since then, other networks in Africa and Asia have developed that capture and sell a variety of endangered species, including great apes, for use in the exotic pet trade, private menageries of the wealthy, and for exhibition and performing in commercial zoos and safari parks.

Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, until recently, Guinea were central in this organized trafficking in Africa. Important branch “offices” have been set up in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere. In Asia, Indonesia and Thailand are key source and entrepôt countries. Egypt still acts as a transit country, but now dealers also smuggle out chimpanzees and gorillas that they have bred themselves.

The main destination countries for great ape prestige pets are the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries, and countries of the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. China and Thailand have large numbers of great apes that they use as photo props when babies, in entertainment shows in the 2 to 10 year old range, and then in zoo displays in cages when older.

5

Great apes are now in demand for use as photo props and as performers in wildlife facilities in eastern Asia.

In the new age of the pet trade, the Internet reigns supreme as a marketing and trading tool. Dealers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have connections with suppliers in source countries and with buyers in destination countries. They post photographs on Instagram and Facebook and the negotiations begin.

6

Social media Internet sites are used today to market and trade great apes.

Primatologists gave talks in the President’s Forum on other species that are used in trade, ranging from lemurs and slow lorises up to gibbons. Under the leadership of Sylvia Atsalis of the University of Chicago, an Action Group has been created which will formulate a survey questionnaire that will be used to gather information in research areas from local people on the collection and trade of primates as pets, asking particularly about the motivations behind it. The Action Group also intends to develop social media messages that can be used to dissuade people from capturing primates for use as pets.

7

Many other primate species are also sold online.

PEGAS will make input to the questionnaire that will ensure that information is also collected on the use of primates in international trade. The investigations that PEGAS is carrying out of Internet social media and Web sites is showing that many primate species are being offered for sale online.

The target date for launching the questionnaire toolkit is January 2017.

Dr. Jane Goodall attended the Congress and received an International Primatological Society Lifetime Achievement Award, well deserved for her amazing contribution to the understanding and conservation of great apes. The PEGAS Project Manager held a useful one-on-one meeting with Dr. Goodall, in which various matters of mutual interest were discussed.