LONDON: A resort complex tucked away in Laos and marketed to Chinese gamblers and tourists is a hub for trade in illegal wildlife products and parts, a new report reveals.
In Sin City: Illegal Wildlife Trade in Laos’ Special Economic Zone, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) documents how the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ) in Bokeo Province has effectively become a lawless playground.
The complex comprises a casino, hotel, shops, restaurants, a shooting range and massage parlours, and visitors can openly buy endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills, snakes and bears – smuggled in from Asia and Africa.
Undercover investigators from EIA and its partner Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) documented restaurants with endangered species on their menus, from ”sauté tiger meat” and bear paws to reptiles and pangolins; one business kept a live python and a bear cub in cages, both of which were available to eat on request.
And the complex has ambitious plans for the manufacture of tiger bone wine. EIA/ENV found four tigers at the GT SEZ in mid-2014 but by February 2015 the number had risen to 35; a senior keeper revealed the goal is to acquire a total of 50 females for breeding to increase the population to 500 tigers within three years and to 1,000 in the long term to produce tiger bone wine for consumption at the GT SEZ and for export to China, via Yunnan.
The GT SEZ is run by the Chinese company Kings Romans Group, which has a 99-year lease and an 80 per cent stake in the operation. The Government of Laos has a 20 per cent stake in the GT SEZ, declaring it a duty-free area and giving it political patronage at the highest level.
Despite being situated in Laos, the GT SEZ functions more as an extension of China – it runs on Beijing time, signs are in Mandarin, most workers are Chinese nationals and the Chinese yuan is the main currency. Chinese nationals are permitted to visit with just an identity card rather than a passport.
The complex is accessed via a purpose-built 30km road from the nearest Laos town of Houaxay and China City Construction Group, a Chinese state-owned company, has been commissioned to build an international airport, a proposal which has created conflict with local farmers over land rights.
While Laos’ wildlife law enforcement is notoriously weak, there is not even a pretense of enforcement in the GT SEZ.
Debbie Banks, EIA Head of Tigers Campaign, said: “The activities within the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone constitute an intolerable disregard for international law as it concerns the illegal wildlife trade and endangered species.
“The Government of China urgently needs to recognise the immense damage this place does to its international reputation and to take meaningful action to rein in a Chinese company which is, in effect, running amuck with impunity in a neighbouring country with weak governance.
“China also needs to understand and accept that its legal domestic trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers is doing nothing but driving consumer demand – whether that demand is thriving at home or, as in the case of the GT SEZ, conveniently shunted into a neighbouring country.”
The report calls for the Government of Laos to immediately establish a multi-agency task force to tackle illegal wildlife trade at the GT SEZ and across the country, and to seize all illegal wildlife products at the GT SEZ.
It further calls on the Government of China to investigate connections between Chinese businesses and traders operating at the GT SEZ and wildlife criminals operating between Laos, Myanmar and China, and to cooperate with international counterparts to disrupt criminal networks.
In addition, Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) should seek CITES trade suspensions until such time as the governments of Laos and China demonstrate that adequate law enforcement, criminal justice and policy measures are being applied towards ending illegal wildlife trade associated with operations at the GT SEZ.