A Malaysian national and his ivory connection to Africa

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For those with even a sporadic interest in international wildlife crime, when the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) or the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) “raises its glass”, figuratively or literally, to the capture of an international wildlife trafficker, you have to sit up and take notice. On June 29, the Royal Thai Police, in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, made such an arrest. Teo Boon Ching, a Malaysian national, was arrested for wildlife trafficking and money laundering. He is to be held pending extradition to the United States.

Although no information on specific charges has been released, the EIA describes Teo Boon Ching as a “key player in the illegal wildlife trade between Africa and Asia”. Thai authorities said:[Teo Boon Ching] did not have an exact place of residence. He always traveled from one country to another, especially in Africa, and was therefore difficult to [track].”

So, who exactly is Teo Boon Ching and what is his significance? With extradition to the United States underway, and taken in conjunction with the 2019 dismantling of the West African Cartel (recently sentenced in New York), it would not be a stretch to assume that Teo Boon Ching’s arrest was related. The EIA, in its report titled “Exposing the Hydra”, names Teo Boon Ching as a key member of a Vietnamese wildlife trafficking syndicate, assuming the role of “specialist transporter”. His favorite contraband was elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and pangolin scales. Teo Boon Ching is said to have been in the business for 20 years and operated a service to clear, transport and sell illegal wildlife products from Malaysia to Laos and China.

With Teo Boon Ching as a specialist transporter and the West African Cartel’s Moazu Kromah as Africa’s leading supplier of ivory and rhino horn, it would make sense that their paths would have crossed. The link is all the stronger since one of Kromah’s customers was Vixay Keosavang. Keosavang, known as “the Pablo Escobar of the wildlife trade”, is based in Laos and has been in the crosshairs of US authorities for years.

Despite his 20 years in the business, public records indicate that Teo Boon Ching had only been arrested once before on wildlife-related charges. In 2015, Thai authorities arrested Kampol ‘Riam’ Noithanom with 300 pounds of ivory hidden in an ice tray mounted in the back of a van. The capture took place about 250 km from the Laotian border and 50 km from the Cambodian border.

A subsequent investigation resulted in the arrest of Teo Boon Ching and an accomplice, Sirichai Sridanond, three months later on March 19. It was alleged that Teo Boon Ching and Sridanond provided the ivory to Noithanom for onward transport. Reports differ on the conclusion of this lawsuit but at worst, Teo Boon Ching received a small fine.

Malaysian police read a warrant for the arrest of 58-year-old Teo Boon Ching, second from right, in Bangkok. (Provided)

Interestingly, during a press conference at the time of his arrest, officials said, “Mr. Teo Boon Ching has made many trips to Kenya. This shows that the illegal ivory trade networks in Thailand are linked to foreign businessmen. Mr. Teo Boon Ching’s frequent travels to the African region, which is Kenya, have led us to believe that this is an African transnational ivory trade network.

At this time, Mombasa was the main port of exit for ivory from Africa and much of this ivory was supplied by Moazu Kromah and the West African cartel. Shortly after the arrest of Teo Boon Ching on March 19, two containers of ivory, one from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other from Mombasa, were seized in Bangkok a week apart. The Mombasa-related seizure is now before the Mombasa courts and is believed to be related to Kromah. The destination of both containers was Laos and shared the same importer.

The EIA report, “Exposing the Hydra,” provides insight into Teo Boon Ching’s work and its value to the Vietnamese trade union. Teo Boon Ching worked in collaboration with Nguyen Tien Son, who operated in Congo, Laos, Mozambique, Nigeria and Vietnam, as well as Le Thi Thank Hai, another transport specialist who mainly moved the contraband of wild animals from Laos to Vietnam and China.

But it has also provided its logistics services to Chinese organized crime groups. He told EIA undercover agents that he was instrumental in recovering two containers of pangolin scales that were en route to Hong Kong when a sister shipment of 7.2 tons of ivory had been seized in 2017. Typically, wildlife traffickers maintain the same logistical “route” (similar route, recipients, sender), until there is a reason to change it. In this case, the seizure of the 7.2 tonnes of ivory would have alerted law enforcement and customs to several imminent arrivals of contraband by sea.

Teo Boon Ching said he was approached by a Chinese businessman from Xianyou named “Lin”, to check if several more containers of pangolin scales could be saved from seizure. Teo Boon Ching contacted his connections in Nigeria, and two containers or pangolin scales were rerouted in time to prevent their seizure. Four other containers, however, were seized: two containers of 8,000 kg of pangolin scales in Sabah, Malaysia, on July 29, 2017, and two containers of 3,000 kg of ivory and 5,000 kg of pangolin scales, also in Sabah, Malaysia, on July 29 august. All of the containers, including the two seized in Hong Kong with 7,200 kg of ivory, came from Nigeria. The shipment of 7,200 kg of ivory was permanently linked to the Kromah network.

The Chinese businessman identified as “Lin”, may well be Lin Zhiyong, known to have Malaysian connections while working with the Chinese cartel of Chen JianCheng and his two sons. They were identified by the Wildlife Justice Commission in a comprehensive February report, titled “Bring down the dragon”. Lin Zhiyong is currently in a Chinese prison sentenced to life for his wildlife criminal activities.

And while Teo Boon Ching boasted of just one seizure out of the 80 container shipments he personally handled (over 80 tonnes of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales), his stub of Achille may well turn out to be the smallest air cargo shipments. he organized Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) from East and West Africa. It is known that during Kromah’s initial arrest in 2017, his mobile phone contained copies of bills of lading for several air cargo shipments from Entebbe International Airport, Kampala, to KLIA, as well as other destinations.

On July 21, 2016, three different seizures were made at KLIA on three different flights from Kinshasa, DRC, via Istanbul, on Turkish Airlines. The total weight of the ivory was 1,001 kg, with the three shipments declared as wood samples and all destined for the same fictitious consignee in Johor. This same consignee from Johor was the intended “buyer” of a 2016 seizure of 1,286 kg of ivory in Juba, South Sudan, which was also destined for KLIA. This shipment was directly attributable to the Kromah network and contained ivory from the Burundian government’s supposedly secure ivory stockpile.

A week later, another seizure at KLIA, this time from Entebbe International Airport but via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and bringing back another 111 kg of ivory. The bill of lading for this shipment was found on Kromah’s phone.

In January 2017, 846.8 kg of ivory, consisting of 254 tusks in 17 wooden boxes, were recovered from KLIA. This Turkish Airline flight had departed from Kinshasa, in the DRC, and had again transited through Istanbul. The shipment had been declared as wood samples, again as in the July 2016 seizure. Another similarity, besides logistics, was the origin of the tusks. DNA analysis showed that the tusks were mostly savannah elephant ivory from Zambia. This was atypical at the time as most of the savannah ivory analyzed came from Mozambique, Tanzania and southern Kenya.

Between March 2016 and October 2016, there were at least three other flights to KLIA, two from Entebbe and one from South Sudan, as indicated by bills of lading on Moazu Kromah’s phone. The total weight of the ivory between the three flights was 1,295 kg.

Wildlife crime experts and affiliated NGOs are now awaiting the outcome of the extradition hearing and subsequent prosecution details. But one thing is certain. The evidence presented in court against Teo Boon Ching will be a gross understatement of the actual total amount he has shipped from Africa to Southeast Asia over the past 20 years.

And I hope there are still more to fall.

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