Cambodian official acquitted in trial that exposed monkey-laundering scheme

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Cambodian official acquitted in trial that exposed monkey-laundering scheme
  • A U.S. court has acquitted a senior Cambodian official accused of involvement in smuggling wild-caught and endangered monkeys into the U.S. for biomedical research.
  • Kry Masphal was arrested in November 2022 and has been detained in the U.S. since then, but is now free to return to his job as director of the Cambodian Forestry Administration’s Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity.
  • Evidence presented at his trial in Miami included a video of him appearing to acknowledge that long-tailed macaques collected by Cambodian exporter Vanny Bio Research were in fact being smuggled.
  • The Cambodian government has welcomed news of the acquittal, while animal rights group PETA says that despite the ruling, “the evidence showed that countless monkeys were abducted from their forest homes and laundered with dirty paperwork.”

PHNOM PENH — On March 22, a jury in Miami, Florida, found Cambodian forestry official Kry Masphal not guilty of conspiracy and smuggling in relation to allegations that he was involved in exporting wild-caught monkeys to the United States and falsely labeling them as captive-bred.

Masphal, the director of the Cambodian Forestry Administration’s Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity, was arrested on Nov. 16, 2022 while traveling through the U.S. to an international wildlife conference. The arrest came after a five-year investigation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that centered around the surge in monkey exports from Cambodia to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic as the demand for primates to test vaccines on soared.

Masphal was one of eight people named in an indictment unsealed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2022, but he was the only defendant to appear in court.

Others named in the 2022 indictment are Keo Omaliss, head of Cambodia’s Forestry Administration; James Man Sang Lau, founder of Vanny Resources Holdings and Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corporation Ltd.; along with Dickson Lau, Sunny Chan, Raphael Cheung Man, Sarah Yeung and Hing Ip Chung, all of whom work for Vanny Group or Vanny Bio Research in one capacity or another.

On paper, Vanny Bio Research runs five facilities breeding long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), but U.S. prosecutors alleged that the company is part of a monkey-smuggling ring that’s been laundering wild-caught long-tailed macaques and — with the support of Masphal and Omaliss — falsifying export permits that label the animals as captive-bred.

In December 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries denied reports that Cambodia had halted exports of long-tailed macaques to the U.S. in response, claiming that Vanny Bio had as many as 150,000 captive-bred macaques across its farms. On March 27 this year, when Mongabay visited Vanny Bio’s compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the facility appeared to be abandoned, with no signs of the long-tailed macaques.

Following his acquittal, Masphal returned to Cambodia and to his role within the Forestry Administration, according to Khim Finan, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Neither Masphal, Omaliss — who remains director-general of the Forestry Administration — nor James Lau could be reached for comment.

“The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is pleased to announce that Mr. Kry Masphal, director of the Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity of the Forestry Administration, has been acquitted by a Florida court on March 22, 2024, in a case alleging his involvement in the transportation of wild long-tailed macaques into the United States,” a March 26 statement from the ministry reads, adding that the detention separated Masphal from his family for more than 16 months.

The ministry’s statement added that “The allegations against Cambodia regarding the long-tailed macaque trade had no evidence and relied on unfounded assertions by certain individuals or NGO personnel, disseminated through unprofessional local media and Western mainstream media, aiming to discredit Cambodian officials and influence the court decision.”

Empty cages at Vanny Bio Research's Phnom Penh facility. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.
Empty cages at Vanny Bio Research’s Phnom Penh facility. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

‘For your smuggling’

The 11-day trial brought an end to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s five-year investigation into monkey laundering in Cambodia, with U.S. authorities estimating that some 55,000 wild-caught long-tailed macaques were poached at Vanny Bio’s behest, roughly 30,000 of which were then exported to the U.S. — allegedly with the support of key Forestry Administration officials such as Masphal, who prosecutors alleged received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Vanny Bio for his services.

The evidence brought forward by the U.S. government included a video of Masphal telling an employee at Vanny Bio that the company should buy land to build a new road to its Pursat facility, where long-tailed macaques were allegedly trafficked to from the surrounding Cardamom Mountains.

“If you make another road, this means [it’s] more safe. For your smuggling,” Masphal is heard saying in the video.

Despite this and almost 100 items of evidence entered into the court by the prosecution — including WhatsApp messages and emails, all of which paint a picture of a wider monkey-laundering scheme — Masphal was acquitted.

Masphal could have faced the rest of his life in prison if convicted on the numerous counts of conspiracy and smuggling, on top of a $250,000 fine, or twice the financial gain suspected, but given the jury’s decision, Masphal will remain free and a senior official within the Cambodian government.

Moments after the jury announced their verdict, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a statement that reads, “Regardless of the verdict, the evidence showed that countless monkeys were abducted from their forest homes and laundered with dirty paperwork and that representatives from two American importers — Worldwide Primates and Orient BioResource Center (now Inotiv) — signed off on the paperwork for black market monkeys.”

Long-tailed-macaques-in-Kampong-Cham-province,-Cambodia
Long-tailed macaques are found across Cambodia, increasingly living in urban areas as their habitats are destroyed. Photo by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

 ‘Historic’ trial ends with disappointment for PETA

“It’s historic this, we’ve never seen anything like this here in the U.S.,” said Lisa Jones-Engel, senior science adviser on primate experimentation at PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department.

Speaking in a phone interview at the advent of Masphal’s trial, Jones-Engel said that convicting crimes related to wildlife smuggling remains challenging, citing numerous cases including that of Matthew Block, founder of Worldwide Primates, a company accused of buying roughly 40% of Vanny Bio’s exported macaques.

Block’s colorful history includes his involvement in a sting operation set up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that saw an agent disguised as a gorilla in the early 1990s, deals with the KGB, and a blundered attempt to smuggle orangutans out of Thailand that led to the notorious “Bangkok Six” case, where four orangutans died during Block’s attempt to traffic them via plane.

“It’s these folks who were kind of cowboys, it was a freewheeling environment, you go in, grab whatever you want, put it an in box and put it on whatever plane you want — there was no-one was questioning you,” Jones-Engel said. “That’s why this is so extraordinary, because [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] finally went in and started asking questions. Everyone in the industry knew this was going on. Everyone.”

PETA’s engagement with the Masphal trial earned the group a subpoena from Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, the law firm representing Masphal in court, days prior to the trial kicking off, demanding communications between PETA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Justice be turned over.

PETA released a statement on March 7 expressing surprise at the subpoena and denying any role in the U.S. government’s investigation.

The defense also sought to prevent long-tailed macaques from being referred to as endangered during the trial, despite the species’ 2022 listing as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Both Masphal’s legal team and the U.S.-based lobby group the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) have attempted to discredit the endangered listing and launched a petition to prevent the U.S. government from protecting long-tailed macaques via the Endangered Species Act.

PETA has launched its own petition to ensure the addition of macaques under the law.

“By having them added to the [Endangered Species Act], it wouldn’t end the use of long-tails or pig-tail[ed macaques], but it would make the hurdles and the red tape so onerous that the pharmaceutical industry would say it’s simply not worth it,” Jones-Engels told Mongabay.

Long-tailed macaque. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Long-tailed macaque. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

‘I saw them and I thought of my family’

One former poacher, who spoke to Mongabay on the condition of anonymity, told of his years working to trap and sell macaques for as much as $200 per animal in Koh Kong province, just south of Vanny Bio’s facility in Pursat province.

He told reporters that he didn’t know where the monkeys ended up as he sold them to middlemen, but that his approach involved cutting down the trees surrounding a troupe of macaques until the only tree left is that housing the monkeys.

“I saw the monkeys, hugging each other — a father, a mother and a child, they were scared — and I thought of my family,” the former poacher said. “When I went home, I hugged my wife and my daughter tight.”

Having packed wild macaques into children’s school backpacks to evade capture, the former smuggler said that he felt regret for his choices and now works as a fisherman, but added that his nephew had continued in the poaching business and was arrested in 2023.

The former poacher’s nephew remains in prison and is due to be released sometime in 2024, but his arrest demonstrates how Cambodia’s wildlife trafficking laws are inconsistently applied.

Poaching, whether for the pharmaceutical industry or for the pet trade, is just one threat to long-tailed macaques, and in Cambodia, where 33% of primary forest cover has been lost since 2001, it’s the species’ adaptability that puts it on a collision course with humans.

“Deforestation is definitely a big threat to the species,” said Nadja Ramseyer Krog, director of the Long-tailed Macaque Project. “They have this ability to find other options when there’s no forest, but this can be an issue because people can develop this negative perception of them.”

This, Ramseyer Krog added, can lead to the culling of urban-dwelling long-tailed macaques, as well as increase the opportunity for poachers selling to the pet trade as well as the biomedical research industry.

But while the threats to the species are relatively well understood, the impact on the actual population of long-tailed macaques, especially in Cambodia, remains a gap in the data. One study from 2022 conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society in Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary found that the population of long-tailed macaques in the sanctuary had dropped by 49-55% in the previous 12 years.

Beyond this, though, it’s difficult for conservationists to know exactly how many long-tailed macaques are left in Cambodia. But the rate at which the monkeys are being taken from the wild, coupled with the rate of habitat loss, paints a bleak outlook.

“It’s important to remember that each and every one of the monkeys that are removed, they leave a void behind in nature, something that they should have been doing is no longer being done,” Ramseyer Krog said. “They are endangered, so every monkey counts.”

Banner image: Long-tailed macaques in Cambodia’s Battambang province. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

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