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 III

Nick, Khun Lee, Eddy and Tom

I was very occupied the next few days with my other operation in Africa. I heard from Jeffrey that nothing happened on the 30th of November, there were mis-communications between Khun Lee and Ton, Tom’s agent. Tom called Jeffrey in his room at the hotel the night of the 30th, scaring the heck out him, which he later wrote up for the NYT. Jeffrey left Bangkok on the 1st.

On 1st December I WhatsApped Freeland: “…give me an update.” They replied, “…again it was a no-show, we will need to wait and try again tomorrow.”

Since nothing seemed to be happening, I emailed Freeland on 2nd December:

“Hi R. and [Khun Lee],

I was thinking, what if I started communicating with Tom again directly? I can say I’m back in Bangkok and very keen to receive the orangs and pay the money and be done with it. What did you say to explain my absence?

I think I could sign back onto WhatsApp with my former number if you stop using it. I will have to sign on again and they will send a 6-digit code to the number, which you will receive.  Then you will have to pass it on to me so I can verify.

Brief me on what has been said, and send me some screen grabs. We can say that I’m going to meet them with Mr. Lee to do the exchange.

Regards,

Xxxx”

Back then, a WhatsApp account was tied to a device, not to a SIM card. So even if the SIM card of the number the WhatsApp account was set up with was not in one’s phone, you could still operate it as long as you inserted the verification code. Since then, WhatsApp has done an update that allows it to detect the SIM card so the account will only operate with the device and SIM card together.

R. of Freeland replied immediately:

“Just to update you for yesterday, Ton lied to us and said he was delivering the kids in a black Toyota, this story later changed to ‘they will be delivered by taxi’. We waited until about 7:30, our driver was then asked to travel to Chanthaburi and would be paid 20,000 THB to deliver the Orangs. At this point we refused to proceed and called it a day.

Both [Khun Lee] and I agree that your plan would be a good idea. Please call me at your earliest convenience and we can do this while we are all together so I can pass you the 6-digit code.”

Chanthaburi? That was like a 5-hour drive southeast from Bangkok to a town only 40 km from the Cambodia border. It didn’t make any sense.

I called them and got the WhatsApp account using my Thai mobile phone number set up on my phone. I saw that Tom had sent me a message saying “Hello” at 18:35 on 29th November and another message early the morning of 30th November saying:

“Use this code to verify my WhatsApp messages and calls to you are end-to-end encrypted:

[three lines of numbered code]

No one had replied to either of Tom’s messages. Khun Lee had the SIM card, had he even put it in a phone to read Tom’s messages? That’s why Tom called Jeffrey’s hotel room the night of the 30th, no one was answering my number.

I discovered that Exoticpet88 was back online. This photo of the kids was posted 1st December:

 

These two were posted 3rd December:

 

This photo was posted on @exoticpetworld on 1st December:

Because Nick had disappeared, Tom was advertising the kids for sale. It would be disaster if someone else bought them.

On 2nd December I WhatsApped R. at Freeland: “Exoticpet88 is back and showing the kids.”

No response, so on 4th December I emailed R.:

“Strangely, the Instagram account exoticpet88 (https://www.instagram.com/exoticpet88/) is back online. The account had no posts from 27 April, then was kicked off of Instagram in around October, I don’t know how they got back on. They are showing the kids from 1st December. The account they replaced it with is still functioning (https://www.instagram.com/exoticpetworld/) and also showing the kids.

I hope Khun [Lee] was serious about refunding me the THB 100,000. Are you going to try and arrest the bank account holder for fraud?”

No reply.

On a whim, I thought I would try contacting Tom using my +27 South Africa WhatsApp, which I had on another mobile phone:

Tom never replied to the old David WhatsApp number.

Still no reply from R., but on 6th December I was copied an email from the head of Freeland to Jeffrey, offering to collaborate on future sting operations to generate stories. One line caught my eye: “You saw [Lee] and [E.] in action during the on-the-job training support.” So Inspector X was being trained, he wasn’t an experienced police operative. I thought he looked young. The head of Freeland concluded: “Meanwhile, believe it or not, Op Kid continues in SE Asia. Hopefully more to come, but lets see.” He didn’t sound overly optimistic.

I received nothing more until 8th December, when R. sent a WhatsApp for me to call. I spoke with R. and with Khun Lee. I tried to formulate a plan of how Khun Lee could act as my agent in Bangkok to conclude the deal with Tom in my absence, me pretending to be in Phuket. I would contact Tom with my usual WhatsApp, saying that after no one had delivered the kids as agreed, I went back to Phuket. I would say I left the $17,150 with Khun Lee to pay for the kids. So if Tom was still in Bangkok, I would authorize Khun Lee to meet with Tom, make sure the kids were in good health, and give him the cash and take the kids. I would fly up to Bangkok and bring the kids back to Phuket.

Talking to Khun Lee about setting up how the sting would go was like an old Abbott and Costello skit, “who’s on first?”, except there was no humor in it. It was almost as if he didn’t want a concrete plan of who would do what, where and when. The call concluded with no clear understanding of what the next steps would be.

I contacted Tom on 15th December:

 
Nick: Lee is an idiot I don’t know what is wrong with him. I am trying to get my money back from him. When you didn’t show up Sunday or Monday 2 weeks ago I left money with him. I got fed up and left Tuesday. Lee has over $17,000 of my money. Why didn’t you meet to give kids and take money? I only get nonsense answers from Lee

Tom only replied with a photo:

 
[Next Day]

Nick: Ohhh they look adorable! Can I send someone to see them? If everything looks good I’ll fly up and we’ll finish it

Tom: Ok
Tom: Give me the number of your person .

Nick: Let me find someone I have to ask them. Do they have to go very far from Bangkok?

Tom: Just a bit . but we can easily work it out to see your kids .
Tom: Did you get your money back , Sir ?
Tom: Mr. Lee , Sir . your 17,000 $ .

Nick: Lee said he would give my money when I came up again

Tom: Ok.

[I didn’t want Khun Lee to run the op, so contacted Noi to see if she was in Bangkok. She wasn’t, she had left the country for something. But she sent me these screenshots from after the blown meeting of 1st or 2nd December, it wasn’t clear from R.’s communications which day the attempted meet took place:



 
This was the result of Khun Lee’s great management skills. I sent these screenshots to R. and said someone else should manage the sting meet for Freeland. R. said ‘Eddy’ would do it, one of their Thai operatives.

[Two days later]

Tom: Hi
Tom: Any update yet , Sir ? Holidays are approaching and I think we should plan as soon as we can .

Nick: I finally found someone who said they can contact you tomorrow. I don’t know that many people in Bangkok I had to ask Noi. She refused but said she knew someone who had time

Tom: Ok
Tom: So he will come to see the kids and take it ?
Tom: In fact I can send down the kids for you too but we have to manage how I should get paid and safe for both of us .

[Next day]

Nick: Noi said this guy can go look to see if kids are healthy and if they are I’ll come to pay and take them. His number is +66 64 275 xxxx
[This was Eddy’s number]

Tom: Ok
Tom: Let me forward the number now .

Nick: Ok

Tom: Noi told me you were inspired to get otans babies because you saw them in phuket zoo , rite ?

Nick: Yes. I was there with Jeffrey and they looked so cute

Tom: Great .
Tom: They got two babies , rite ?

Nick: Yes the keeper told me they got them from a zoo in Bangkok

Tom: But kept in the zoo is not good for them .
Tom: Really
[This was rich coming from an ape slaver.]

Nick: I think they were born in a zoo so what to do?

Tom: If they were captive born then should be OK . safari world in Bangkok got lots of jubenile otans when I was there
Tom: And at least ten little babies they got .
Tom: They breed them quite successful .
[More useful intel on Tom, he had inside info at Bangkok Safari World]

Nick: Really?

Tom: Yes
Tom: A lots of them .
Tom: My agent talked to Eddy today .
Tom: Eddy will go and meet your kids in the next couple of days .

Nick: I should have asked if they wanted to sell. Can they sell to individuals? Is eddy noi’s friend?

Tom: Eddy is nois contact .

Nick: Ok fine I hope he goes soon
[I was trying to distance myself from Eddy, in case Tom asked me any questions about who he was. If asked, my story was that Noi just gave me the phone number with no name.]

Tom: They can’t sell to private person .

Nick: What I thought

Tom: In fact Eddy could take back the kids for you if you want .
Tom: He can go inspect , inform you and take it back if you want .

Nick: Lee would have to give him the money. Let me think about it and find out from Noi more about who eddy is

Tom: Ok , Sir .

[Next day]

Tom: Hello

Nick: Hello

Tom: Have you spoken to Noi about Eddy ?
Tom: My guy in bkk is on stand by for you

Nick: She hasn’t answered my call maybe she’s busy. I sent her message to call me

Tom: Ok

Nick: Noi called me and said Eddy is very trustworthy. He will go look at the kids and if they are in good health he will let me know and I will tell Lee to deposit the money. Should it go into the same account as before?

Tom: Yes , Sir .
Tom: Ok
Tom: I will tell my local guy to set up meeting with Eddy , Sir .

Nick: Wonderful

Tom: Will.update

[I was in communications with R. and another Freeland staff member coordinating the meet between Eddy and Tom’s agent. We were all on the same page. It was disappointing that Tom would not be there for the sting, but hopefully his agent would be able to spill the beans on the network and the true identities of Tom and others.]

[Next day, 21 December 2016]

Nick: Hello Tom. Eddy is not answering his phone. Did he pick up the kids?

Tom: My guy is waiting for him since one hour .
Tom: He said he is on the sky train

Nick: Ok I’ll try to be patient

Tom: Ok
Tom: Eddy called you back yet ?


 
[Tom’s guy never took the kids to a vet. The deal was supposed to be a handover of the kids to Eddy, Eddy would inform Lee, and Lee would deposit the final payment. I received a call from Freeland that the courier had been arrested and the kids seized by the police. I later discovered that the sting had been held in a mall parking garage. Why? What happened to the plan to make the arrest in the vet’s office? I was never to receive an answer to my question.]

Nick: Noi told me kids were seized. What do l do?

[No reply]

On 25th December I sent a last message:

Nick: Merry Christmas Tom

The +855 81 number went dead, never to return to service, and the Exoticpet88 and Exoticpetworld IG accounts disappeared from the Internet.

There was considerable media coverage of the sting (selected):

AP on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCHe8zYIDsE

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1167496/baby-orangutans-rescued-in-thai-police-sting

https://www.freeland.org/post/exotic-wildlife-trafficking-ring-broken-in-asia

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38409849

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4063418/Baby-orangutans-rescued-Thai-police-sting.html

http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/nation/2016/12/22/thai-police-rescue-two-baby-orangutans/95742732/

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/videos/news/thai-police-rescue-two-baby-orangutans/videoshow/56124321.cms

http://www.thestartv.com/episode/thai-wildlife-authority-agents-seized-two-smuggled-infant-orangutan-from-sting-operation/

baby-orangutans/vp-BBxsilS / https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/thai-police-rescue-two-baby-orangutans/vp-BBxsilS

http://www.khou.com/features/baby-orangutans-rescued-in-thailand/376899269

http://thailand-uk.com/forums/showthread.php?21750-Baby-orangutans-rescued-from-Thai-taxi

https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/world/its-really-saddening-see-thai-police-rescue-baby-orangutans-in-wildlife-trafficking-bust-v1

http://globalheadlines.ddns.net/news/baby-orangutans-rescued-from-thai-taxi

http://www.entirenewslink.com/baby-orangutans-rescued-from-thai-taxi/

http://hottestnews.xyz/sciencenature/baby-orangutans-rescued-from-thai-taxi/

http://journaltimes.com/news/world/video-thai-police-rescue-baby-orangutans/video_33d70f5a-6de0-5765-a2e7-3892694bfd7c.html

http://www.bta.bg/en/gallery/image/3837244

http://theworldlink.com/news/world/video-thai-police-rescue-baby-orangutans/video_3783ccaf-ea34-5b43-89f1-804bba58e74d.html

http://azdailysun.com/news/world/video-thai-police-rescue-baby-orangutans/video_e43d6cd8-1a1d-5fd1-b489-d064bd581940.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-23/thai-police-rescue-two-baby-orangutans/8144566

http://www.bkgnews.com/sciencenature/baby-orangutans-rescued-from-thai-taxi/

http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/world/video-thai-police-rescue-baby-orangutans/video_a453a52f-08cf-5658-8e28-6d3168672bb5.html

https://www.aargauerzeitung.ch/panorama/vermischtes/zwei-baby-orang-utans-aus-schmugglerhaenden-befreit-130814731

https://freetheapes.org/2016/12/28/infant-orangutans-rescued-in-police-sting/

Video of Bangkok trafficker and orangs https://www.facebook.com/edwin.wiek/videos/10153985145382443/

Freeland sent me some photos of the bust.

I only found out later that there was only a taxi driver in the car, no ‘agent’ of Tom’s – unless the driver was the agent.


 
The kids were taken to a government wildlife holding facility outside of Bangkok.


 
I tried for weeks to get news from Freeland of what was happening with the case, but no one would give me a straight answer, just saying it was in progress. I didn’t even know if anyone had been arrested or if a prosecution was planned. I thought at least Jirapat, the person in whose bank account I had made the deposit, could be prosecuted. I only found out from tweets on Edwin Wiek’s Twitter account later what happened.


 
Nothing. No arrests, no prosecutions, no investigation. The only good outcome, other than preventing the trafficking of the kids, was Jeffrey’s New York Times article, which came out almost a year after the sting:

End of Part III.

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

Anatomy of a Sting – Part I

by

Nick

 

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 am in Jakarta”. Exoticpet88 was selling chimpanzees. Where were they coming from?

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?

An IG account owned by a Kuwaiti animal trafficker.

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.”

Three weeks later a ‘Joe TK <exoticpet88@gmail.com>’ replied:

 

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.

This post of an orangutan infant posted on 10th October 2016 was first posted on @exoticpet88 in 2014.

It looked like Tom and/or his associates were reviving the online business.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Six months earlier, in March 2016 Amazonpet posted this photo, along with many others around the same time, of apes, big cats, etc., so their WhatsApp message to me that they sold only reptiles rang hollow.

My exchange with Tom ceased for the time being.

End of Part I

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.

Ape Only Walks Upright After Spending 9 Years Stuck In This Cage

ELIZABETH CLAIRE ALBERTS wrote a wonderful story in The Dodo on Poco, one of Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary’s most famous residents. We reprint it here.

He might look different, but he’s the sweetest chimp — and loves to show off for visitors at his new sanctuary home.

Rusted metal cage
Chimp sitting on the ground at sanctuary
Chimp lying on grass at sanctuary
Chimp standing at fence of enclosure
Woman looking at cage that imprisoned chimp

Intrepid Saudi mountain climber and humanitarian visits Sweetwaters sanctuary: makes plea to stop chimpanzee trade

Raha Moharrak is not only a unique person in the Arab world, she is unique anywhere. She is the first Arab and youngest woman to have conquered the summits of the highest mountains in all seven continents – the Seven Summits – including Mt. Everest and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Speaking about her impressive success, she said: “I really don’t care about being the first, so long as it inspires someone else to be second.”

“I really don’t care about being the first, so long as it inspires someone else to be second.”

Raha was bitten by the adventure bug at an early age growing up in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. Her father, a successful entrepreneur originating in the poor south of the country on the Yemen border, allowed the headstrong young girl to pursue her interests and gain a good education. She has a degree in Visual Communication from the American University in Sharjah and is now pursuing an MBA at the Synergy University in Dubai, where she works as a graphic artist.

“I am an adventurer first and a graphic artist second,” she told PEGAS. But after learning of her travel schedule how she finds time to work is a mystery.

But adventure is not Raha’s only pursuit – she also seeks worthy projects to support. She picks each project carefully, ensuring that the cause she supports is a worthy one.

As part of her many interests, a concern for animal welfare led her to join the Middle East Animal Foundation in Dubai. A partner and friend of PEGAS, Debbie Lawson, also a MEAF member, introduced Raha to PEGAS’s work, which immediately raised her interest and curiosity. She decided to visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary to learn more about the plight of great apes and the illegal exotic pet trade that threatened their survival in the wild. She thought that perhaps she could help in raising awareness about the issue, which was little understood by the world.

My coincidence, a documentary filmmaker that PEGAS was working with from the U.S. was planning to visit Ol Pejeta at about the same time. PEGAS thought bringing the two together could result in producing an effective public service announcement (PSA). It worked out, and Colin Sytsma, the filmmaker, and Raha came together at Ol Pejeta in March 2018.

As many visitors do, Raha fell in love with Manno, the adorable young chimpanzee that PEGAS helped rescue and relocate from a private zoo in Iraqi Kurdistan to Sweetwaters in late 2016. Manno seemed intrigued with Raha and in an instantaneous meeting of the eyes a bond was forged between the two.

“He has these beautiful amber eyes. I can’t fathom how somebody could see that, shoot the mother, … and send the baby off to someone to purchase….”.

“He has these beautiful amber eyes,” Raha said. “I can’t fathom how somebody could see that, shoot the mother, … and send the baby off to someone to purchase….”.

PEGAS hopes that Raha’s message is listened to and heeded, especially in her part of the world where great apes are such popular pets.