Panama City, PanamaU.S. authorities arrested a top Cambodian wildlife official yesterday on his way to a global wildlife trade summit in Panama. He was detained in New York at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Masphal Kry, 46, is alleged to be part of an international primate smuggling ring that has sold thousands of wild long-tailed macaques, an endangered animal, to research facilities in the United States, representing them as captive bred. Allegations against Kry include accepting bribes and personally delivering wild-caught monkeys to a Cambodian facility that passed the animals off as bred in captivity.
Kry is a deputy director at the Cambodian Forestry Administration, within the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Omaliss Keo, 58, the director general of the forestry administration was also indicted, as were six others affiliated with Vanny Resource Holdings—an animal-breeding company with operations in Hong Kong and Cambodia that supplies the United States with research animals. The eight individuals have been charged with smuggling and conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, the U.S.'s oldest wildlife protection law.
According to the indictment, putative breeding facilities in Cambodia made up for shortages in suitable captive-bred monkeys by exporting more than a thousand wild primates, identified falsely in export paperwork as captive bred, to Florida and Texas. Kry and other Cambodian government employees allegedly personally delivered wild long-tailed macaques to a facility in Pursat, Cambodia, between December 2017 and September 2022. The macaques were taken from national parks and protected areas in the country.
The indicted government officials allegedly received cash to participate in the scheme, which included payments for the collection and transport of up to 3,000 “unofficial animals” that could later be sold to customers in the U.S. and elsewhere. In 2020, Vanny Resource Holdings also is alleged to have separately paid more than $2.5 million to seven black market suppliers for more than 14,000 wild-caught macaques.
Around the same time the arrest occurred yesterday, Dany Chheang, deputy director general of Cambodia’s forestry administration, was speaking with National Geographic about long-tailed macaques and their possible illegal export from Cambodia at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference—the summit his colleague Kry was en route to attend.
Chheang told National Geographic that his country does not pass off wild long-tailed macaques as captive bred, adding that people often round up “problem” macaques and dump them at pagodas and tourist sites. The animals, Chheang said, are later caught and sent to a sanctuary—not killed or used for research. Laundering of wild-caught macaques “doesn’t happen,” he said. “People just make noise.”
Chheang continued, “This is international trade, so we can’t do things without CITES permits. It’s all in the log books.” Under CITES, long-tailed macaques have been regulated since 1977, meaning that each shipment of the protected animals requires paperwork declaring their origin.
“Macaque farming is successful for conservation,” Chheang said, and “if it weren’t for captive breeding, these animals would have disappeared long ago.”
Chheang did not respond to a request for comment following news of the arrest and indictment of his colleagues.
Earlier this year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed long-tailed macaques as endangered. Demand for the monkeys, popular with biomedical researchers because they're easy to work with, soared during the pandemic. Scientists use them to test COVID-19 vaccines, as models for Alzheimer’s research, and to help ascertain the toxicity of pesticides to humans, among other things.
The International Primatological Society said in a recent statement that the capture of wild-caught monkeys for lab experiments and their misrepresentation as captive bred are a “major threat” to their conservation.