Tracking The Tiger Butcher
Large numbers of tigers are being farmed, killed and trafficked in Laos.
Terrence McCoy - Published in Reader's Digest on Jul 29, 2020 12:16:13 IST
He was up there somewhere, at the top of the hill, the man Karl Ammann had come to see. It would soon be night. The forest was all shadows and sounds. Ammann had driven across Laos to reach Tha Bak, a remote river village, to confront the person he believed had murdered more tigers than anyone in the country. In the distance, he could hear dozens of tigers roaring.
For nearly five years, Ammann, 71, a Swiss counter-trafficking conservationist, had tracked Nikhom Keovised. He had placed hidden cameras inside what had once been the largest tiger farm in South East Asia, an illegal operation where tigers had been raised to one end—slaughter. And he had listened to the man doing the slaughtering describe it in his own words: “Use the anaesthetic,” Keovised had said. “Then just cut the neck.” Then “peel its skin.”
Now Keovised had just opened here in Tha Bak what his boss—considered one of the nation’s biggest wildlife traffickers—described as a zoo, but what Ammann suspected was a front for selling tigers.
Ammann knew the risks. He was in the country without permission to investigate its wildlife practices. He was unarmed. Neither Keovised nor his boss had ever been charged with anything, let alone arrested. If discovered, the equipment Ammann had with him—the drone, the hidden cameras, the satellite images of the country’s tiger farms—would immediately unravel his cover story: that he was a tourist.
But he could already feel the familiar intensity. It had driven him to undertake dozens of risky, self-funded investigations, pushed him to the fringes of the conservation community and caused even friends to describe him as obsessive, if not a little crazy. He couldn’t stop. Those responsible had to be held to account.
For 10 days in late 2018, I joined Ammann on an undercover journey to determine whether Laos, a global hub of wildlife trafficking, had fulfilled its promises since 2016 to stamp out the wildlife trade. Now we’d arrived at this hill, where, above, the tigers were becoming louder.
They were hungry, Ammann announced. It would soon be time to feed them. He slung his camera over his shoulder and started up the hill, in search of tigers and their warden.
A Risk Taker
The tiger, whose captive population now dwarfs its numbers in the wild, is on the verge of becoming a fully industrialized commodity. Over the past century or so, the population in the wild has plunged from an estimated 1,00,000 to fewer than 4,000, while the number in captivity had exploded to more than 12,500.
Nowhere else was the animal’s commodification more complete than in tiger farming, where it is raised, butchered for parts and sold for tens of thousands of dollars. And nowhere else had these farms operated with greater impunity than in Laos, a nation whose own wild tigers have nearly all been killed. Ammann was one of the few people who’d seen inside the country’s farms.
When I’d first spoken to him in June 2018, I’d expected to find someone who was, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful. Since 2016, international authorities and some conservationists had applauded Laos, home to some of Asia’s biggest wildlife traffickers, as it announced overhauls to clean up the trade.
Shops trading in bones and wildlife merchandise were to cease. All three of the country’s illegal tiger farms, which stored 700 tigers, were ordered to stop farming and convert into zoos and conservation centres. No new facilities breeding endangered wildlife for commercial purposes would open. But Ammann was neither optimistic nor hopeful.
He cited operational tiger farms in Laos and how we were being taken for “bloody fools”. “They all want hope and happy endings,” he said of producers and audiences who ignored his documentaries. “And I don’t see any happy endings.”
Almost every conservationist I asked said Ammann’s findings were sound. He could be trusted—but...
“He takes a lot of risks,” Steve Galster, a counter-trafficking expert in Bangkok, said after a long pause. He had been kicked out of an international conservation meeting for aggressively confronting officials.
“A bit of a kook who gets results,” a law-enforcement consultant in Laos called him.
Ammann sent me some of those results, photographs of a diseased tiger in a claustrophobic cage—mangy, eyes desperate. The next showed seven tigers in cramped cages eating raw chicken off the ground and, from high above, drone images of two massive tiger farms, showing the animal in cage after cage.
He included a 3,700-word missive he’d dispatched to CITES, the UN commission charged with regulating the wildlife trade, accusing it of being “a big part of the problem.” He’d sent the same letter to a European Parliament official, attaching this comment: “So you cannot say you did not know. My motto for doing this.”
I called Ammann at his estate at the base of Mount Kenya. He was going to Laos again, before year’s end, he said. This time, he hoped to personally meet those who’d profited from the death of the tiger. “Why don’t you come,” he asked, “and see for yourself?”
So, for 10 days in late 2018, I joined Ammann on an undercover journey to determine whether Laos had fulfilled its promises since 2016 to stamp out the wildlife trade.
The Journey Begins
I arrived at my hotel in northern Thailand past midnight. We’d planned to meet at 8 a.m. but a note waiting for me from Ammann said we had to meet at 7 a.m. A long day was ahead. After a handshake and a few quick words, we were inside a van, bumping towards the Laos border.
Ammann wanted to cross into the country by nightfall, where he said the real journey would begin. Landlocked and mountainous, Laos has nearly 2,575 kilometres of borders with Vietnam and China, whose appetite for illicit wildlife products had both decimated numerous species and transformed Laos into a global epicentre of wildlife trade. A 2017 CITES report was blunt: “Everyone can buy everything and cross the border.”
Over the next 10 days, Ammann planned to traverse much of the country, investigating rumours of a never-before-identified tiger enclosure, buying tiger products from merchants and flying drones over tiger farms. Lastly, he’d venture to a new resort and ‘zoo’ named Say Namthurn at Tha Bak, where Ammann hoped to finally meet Keovised, the tiger butcher, and his boss, Sakhone Keosouvanh, who helped bring tiger farming to Laos.
Inside the van, along with Ammann were his cameraman, Phil Hattingh, a towering South African, and a young Hong Kong Chinese woman named Grace Chan.
“They’ll think you’re a customer,” Ammann said to Chan, explaining that his plan for her on this trip was to visit shops while wearing a hidden camera to buy tiger products. Ammann met Chan in 2017 after she’d contacted him to discuss elephant trafficking.
To bolster her expertise on the tiger economy, Ammann handed her a tattered book. It showed pictures of a tiger skull, femur, tibia and hip, and described the bones as a ‘precious crude medicine’, whose medicinal use in China traced back more than 1,400 years. As China’s economy grew, the animal’s mythical qualities—none of which are substantiated by modern medicine—ignited a market for tiger products.
With only a few dozen tigers left, the Chinese government banned killing endangered species in the wild while encouraging their ‘domestication’ and breeding to sate demand for tiger products while protecting those in the wild. Instead, demand exploded further, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who’s studied the industry, inciting rampant poaching of wild tigers all over Asia.
Chinese officials in 1993 prohibited domestic trade in tiger bone but didn’t close the country’s many farms. That year, CITES, which has few enforcement tools, banned tiger farming for commercial purposes. China chafed against the restrictions then, and now. In 2018, it legalized trade in tiger parts for medicinal purposes but, under international pressure, quickly reinstated its ban.
To bypass it, some Chinese customers flock to border towns in the Golden Triangle area, where the countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge. That was exactly what Ammann wanted to investigate first.
Consumed by Outrage
We drove into the night until a city sprang out of the blackness. Lexuses and Mercedes wheeled down its streets with Chinese licence plates. People swarmed around a large casino at the town’s centre.
Known as the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, this sliver of Bokeo Province is controlled by a transnational criminal operation that “engages in an array of horrendous illicit activities,” including child prostitution and human, drug and wildlife trafficking, according to the US Treasury Department, which imposed sanctions on the network.
On our first morning here, Ammann was already exasperated. His driver was not going fast enough, his computer had stopped working, and the hotel where we’d spent the night before—the only one that still took Western guests following the US sanctions—had just told us to clear out.
Ammann knew how he sometimes sounded, but there was no time for niceties. In conversations, he frequently brought up environmental studies he’d just read, all of them apparently grim. The planet could soon lose 60 per cent of primate species, according to the peer-reviewed journal, Science Advances, noting how bush-meat hunting had sped their demise—a revelation that, to Ammann, wasn’t a revelation at all. It was his origin story.
In 1988, Ammann was in a longboat chugging up the Congo River in what was then Zaire. By then, he’d already spent two decades in Africa, where he had worked as a hotelier and photographer, eventually becoming wealthy opening and selling an eco-tourism camp in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. But along the river’s banks, he saw hundreds of slaughtered primates awaiting transport to nearby markets. Deforestation had provided hunters with access to animals previously protected by dense jungle.
The outrage he’d felt soon consumed him. In the early 1990s, he went to remote merchants and logging encampments and returned with gruesome images. Decapitated gorillas. Charbroiled monkeys. Butchered chimpanzees. He published books, lobbied governments, led international petitions against wildlife slaughter.
He described it all graphically, hoping to shock people into action. “Up to their elbows in blood,” he said of bushmeat hunters in one 1995 newspaper interview. “Maybe I’ve become too extreme,” he confessed in another, and many conservationists then agreed.
Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee conservationist, said he was too aggressive, and he said she wasn’t aggressive enough. Other conservationists accused him of “cultural imperialism”, and he countered that they worried more about fundraising than truth.
“He won’t stop,” says his wife, Kathy, even after he was named a Time magazine Hero of the Environment in 2007 for “almost single-handedly raising awareness of the issue of bushmeat,” and was told to slow down.
Two personalities jostle inside him, said Dale Peterson, a former collaborator. He was one person around people—combative, cynical, “miserable”, as Peterson put it—and another around animals. That was the Ammann who’d stop and discuss even a small bird, he said, “in the most affectionate way.” He was “driven by something larger.”
That intensity building within, he pulled up to the market along the Mekong River, straddling the Lao-Thai border. The door opened, out Chan went, and from the market entrance, Ammann watched her disappear into the stalls.
“Mr He Sent Us”
She was dressed in black. Black hat. Black sunglasses. Black blouse, the top button of which concealed the camera. Ammann wanted us to keep our distance from her at first. Sellers these days store their jewellery and medicine in back rooms and hidden drawers that open only for wealthy Chinese customers—which was how Ammann hoped Chan would appear.
We met her at the counter of an open-air store named Exotic Family. There, a thin Chinese salesman was saying, yes, he had tiger parts to sell. Out came a small, hollowed tiger bone with intricate carvings: $223 [₹16,759]. Also a tiger claw: $223. And two tiger fangs: $1,340 [₹1,02,707].
Ammann asked to see more. The man pulled out his phone and sent a contact request on the messaging app WeChat to Chan. All she needed to do was enter a few keywords—‘jelly’ for ivory, ‘king’ for tiger products—to thwart a blanket prohibition on the trade on China’s leading commerce sites.
But one rare product didn’t appear on the seller’s WeChat profile. Did he have any tiger skin for sale?
“No tiger skins anymore,” he said in Chinese. “Tigers in Laos are now protected.”
Ammann knew Laos had vowed to stop the trade in wildlife products, and yet here this merchant was doing just that. So how likely was it that much had changed?
A promised ‘full audit’ and phase-out plan by the government of the country’s captive tigers had faced numerous delays. The same tiger breeders were still involved in the operations, where the tiger population has been fluctuating dramatically, indicating possible trade.
A farm called Vinasakhone—where Keovised had worked—reported a sudden loss of 300 tigers in 2017 without ever explaining how that happened. Then a new and massive farm was disclosed by a Vietnamese news outlet in April 2017 in the central Laos town of Lak Sao and as of last year housed 106 tigers.
Ammann, walking away from the stall and the market, believed there were even more tiger enclosures now in Laos, which hadn’t yet been identified. One was rumoured to be right here in the Golden Triangle: He had to find out whether it was true.
We drove several miles, coming to a stop on a desolate dirt road wedged between thatched-roof huts and jungle. Ammann got out, reached for his camera and approached the walls, from which hung signs praising the facility’s supposed role in conservation. “Caring rare animals, protect the blue planet,” said one in English.
“This must be it,” he said, walking up to the metal gates of a compound said to be controlled by the local criminal syndicate. He started banging. A young shirtless man came to see what was going on. Ammann decided to bluff his way in.
“Tell him Mr He sent us here,” Ammann directed Chan, who had no idea what he was talking about, but decided to do it anyway.
The gate was slightly ajar. Ammann vanished beyond the wall. Chan and I followed. A sound of joy and wonder came into Ammann’s voice. In the darkness of one of the structures, stripes were moving. Even after all this time, seeing tigers up close stunned him. They were so big, moving with the latent energy of coiled springs.
The worker wanted us out. He was staring at Ammann, who continued to film. He was calling his boss again. One more look, and Ammann was in the car, and it was pulling away, and he couldn’t help but shake his head.
“Yeah, but Laos is closing down the tiger farms, isn’t it?” he said.
Another New Farm
Days later, after Chan had bought and filmed tiger parts being sold in shops all over Laos, and after we’d left her in the capital of Vientiane with her job complete, we headed across the country to the Vietnam border.
Ammann was in a darker mood than usual. “It’s frustrating to care about something this much,” he said. “Am I wasting my time?”
Several times during the trip, I’d asked him why continue if he thought the work was futile. “The real challenge starts when you know, ‘I’m never going to win,’ but you keep going,” he answered once. “If I’ve had a few bad nights’ sleep over what I’ve seen, well, let me give a few others a bad night’s sleep.”
The van now crossed a muddy river, continuing along Highway 8. The town of Lak Sao soon came into view. We bounced off the main highway, forked into a quiet village and rolled onto an unmarked dirt path.
“This is it,” Ammann said. Just down this road was the Lak Sao tiger farm, with around 100 tigers inside, if not more. Hattingh, the cameraman, was reaching into his bag. Out came the drone. They had five minutes—10 tops—to get what they needed and get out.
“If you see people running, bring it home and get out of there,” Ammann said. “If they catch you with a drone and no licence, they can throw the book at you.”
Hattingh climbed out. He stepped into the bush behind the back of the compound’s tall concrete walls. The drone, the size of a hawk and buzzing like the world’s loudest cicada, levitated into the air. The video was beamed back into a hand-held screen, showing tigers pacing in their cages, appearing as small as insects.
This operation wasn’t like the last one, not another small tiger enclosure hidden away in the hills. This was industrial. The drone came down. Hattingh hurried back. We got in the van, and Ammann told the driver to hit it.
Arriving in Tha Bak
Deeper into the countryside we went, until there came the river village of Tha Bak. A sign announced the resort of Say Namthurn, listing its offerings: golf course, drinking water, zoo. Tigers roared atop a hill shrouded by forest. Ammann reached for his camera.
That is where he hoped to find Keovised.
Ammann first heard that name in early 2014. His investigation had brought him to central Laos, where Vinasakhone, the country’s biggest farm, stored hundreds of tigers behind concrete walls.
Its co-owner at the time was a short man named Sakhone Keosouvanh. Equipped with government connections, he helped craft Laos’s failed plan to save the country’s last tigers and represented tiger farmers at an international tiger preservation meeting. His farm promoted itself as helping to preserve the tiger population.
Meanwhile, tiger breeding, killing and selling were going on inside those walls, according to Laos government reports, and the man who oversaw much of it was Keovised. (Neither Keosouvanh nor Keovised responded to numerous requests for comment.)
Keovised was the one who met with an investigator Ammann had sent into the farm equipped with a hidden camera and the cover story that he was there to inquire about four tigers for a farm that his ‘millionaire’ Chinese boss wanted to build.
Over months, the two men developed a friendship. The investigator would take Keovised out for drinks, then secretly record their conversations. Soon Keovised was delving into how tigers were illegally bred, killed and harvested for parts at a level that staggered Ammann.
During the first 10 months of 2014 alone, Vinasakhone and another farm traded nearly eight tons of lion and tiger bone, the former of which is sometimes passed off as tiger bone, according to one government document by the Lao Division of Forest Inspection that I obtained. The report, first reported by the Guardian, accused the farm of breaking international and local law.
But no action could be taken against it. The farm had “approval from government,” which imposed an extra tax of 2 per cent on all wildlife exports, according to a 2003 Laos customs document. A 2016 confidential survey of the country’s wildlife farms by the Lao Department of Forest Resource Management said the farm wasn’t breeding tigers for “scientific research”—as its permit stated—but for slaughter. One corpse was believed to go for $30,000 [₹22,54,630].
“We use this anaesthetic” was how Keovised described the process in a conversation with Ammann’s investigator. “They fall down.”
“How do you kill it?” the investigator asked.
Some have their throats cut. But many clients refuse to buy pierced skin, so “we use the elastic string to tighten its neck … until it died.”
Some buyers want the meat, others the bones, and others only want a dense block of hardened resin known as tiger glue made by boiling the bones.
In 2016, a new Lao administration, yielding to international demands, announced that the farms would close, accusing them of illegally “trading tiger products to international buyers.” Soon after, 300 of Vinasakhone’s 400 tigers vanished.
Then Keosouvanh, the co-owner, abandoned the farm, beginning a new tiger operation out here. And with him, Ammann heard from his investigator, he had brought along his farm manager, Keovised.
Meeting the Boss
“If Sakhone is here, we have to be careful,” Ammann said. The tiger farmer had been so well protected that he’d never faced charges. Ammann worried about that power. Our intentions for being there couldn’t be discovered.
We walked through a tourist attraction bereft of tourists to the restaurant patio along the river. “There he is,” Ammann said softly. Keosouvanh was coming our way across the patio, wearing a blue button-down, gold ring and watch, with a Toyota Hilux key dangling from his belt loop.
For so long, Ammann had known Keosouvanh only as a name on investigative reports and translated transcripts. But now he was gripping Ammann’s hand and smiling broadly. Keosouvanh took a seat at our table and looked us over. Beers arrived. Ammann, playing the role of tourist, did the talking. Through an interpreter, he asked Keosouvanh how he’d made his money.
“An import–export company,” Keosouvanh said.
Ammann asked what he exported.
“Mainly coal,” Keosouvanh said.
Ammann later told me he’d had the urge to turn on his camera and confront him. He wanted to tell him that he’d actually exported tigers—and accuse him of still doing it. “We breed them to get their babies” to sell, Keovised had recently told Ammann’s investigator, illegal trade an investigative Vietnamese agency has discovered as well.
Then there was something else: Ammann had learnt what he believed was the truth of the missing 300 tigers from Keosouvanh’s farm. Many had been killed, frozen and trafficked, according to Keovised and interviews I’ve had with two other people with knowledge of the missing tigers. But Ammann could say none of this, not here.
Instead, Ammann glanced out into the forests on the other side of the river. They looked so dense. So dark. Surely anything could be out there.
“What animals are left in this forest?” he asked, waving a hand towards the trees. “Are there any tigers left?”
Keosouvanh looked at him for a moment, his face blank.
“No,” he finally said. “None of those.”
The Farm Manager
The tigers weren’t in the forest, but up the hill, on the other side of the resort. The next afternoon, Ammann went past the gates, the river far below him. He kept his gaze fixed on the ramshackle structure—chain-link fencing, anchored by poles and patched with blue tarp. The sound of groaning tigers was all around.
He went inside. Behind two lines of fencing, on either side of the narrow hallway, were flashes of teeth and slate green eyes. Thirty-five tigers, some weighing over 180 kilos, stalked back and forth, housed separately in 9 x 12-foot cages.
Every now and then, a worker would pull open a side door connecting the cages, and in would come another tiger. The two would mate, then separate, an act that Ammann and I witnessed three times in less than an hour. Standing here, I realized, the existence of the tiger had been reduced to this: endless pacing, speed breeding and a meal of raw chicken hurled into its cage at 5 p.m.
“You couldn’t licence a zoo like this anywhere in the world,” Ammann said. After spending hours here—during which we saw only one group of local tourists pay the admission fee of $2 [₹150]—he turned to leave. Then, just outside the front entrance, on the gravel, he saw him.
He was sitting at a table strewn with beer bottles—a short man with yellowing teeth, wearing dusty black pants and flip-flops. Ammann walked over to him.
How many hours had he listened to the farm manager in the recordings describe the most macabre of details in the most perfunctory of ways? And now here Keovised was, sitting outside a small concrete house, doing nothing more than drinking and smoking after a day of work. Ammann and I took seats at his table. Keovised smiled at the unexpected guests, pouring us beers. This time, however, Ammann did flip on his camera.
Then, as his Lao guide interpreted, he started in with it: “What is going to happen to these tigers?”
“So how often do they get tourists?”
“We saw three tiger pairs mating, so in three and a half months, how many babies?”
Keovised laughed and offered Ammann more beer. He said he’d worked with tigers since 2007, and this enclosure, which he’d taken over seven months before, was just getting started. These tigers would never leave. Few tourists came, but soon there would be more cages filled with tiger cubs. What he didn’t tell Ammann now, but what he’d told Ammann’s informant: The tigers were profoundly inbred, and few cubs were surviving, only 18 so far.
“So, much work needs to be done?” Ammann said, motioning towards the construction, where more cages were being built. Keovised only laughed again. Ammann took one last look at him. Then he finished his drink, turned off his camera and got up from the table. He’d had enough. He descended the hill, as the day’s last light bloomed orange and red above the mountains.
“This Is Our System”
Then it was morning. Ammann directed his driver to take him to the capital to present his findings to the local office of CITES. He stared out the window and thought of Keovised. He’d always pictured him as powerful and menacing, but he hadn’t been that at all. He’d seemed impoverished, doing what he had to do to survive. At least Keovised was who he presented himself to be, Ammann realized, and the self-congratulatory networkers at the wildlife conferences were not.
Soon he was walking inside an expansive building carrying a briefcase where he’d stored evidence of his findings. Two new tiger enclosures that didn’t look to him like conservation parks or zoos. Ongoing illegal trade in tiger parts. Signs of expansion at several farms. Allegations that many of the missing 300 tigers had been killed. And proof that the same people who had illegally butchered and sold tigers were still acting as keepers of the animals.
Then he was in a barren conference room, facing a CITES bureaucrat. I sat at the end of the table, watching as Ammann’s anger began to build.
“We know there are two more tiger farms,” Ammann said. “Two new tiger farms! You said you’re closing them down?” On and on he went—but it was no use. Take it up with the bosses in Geneva, he was told. There wasn’t anything the office could do with information brought in like this.
“This is our system,” the official said.
Ammann took down the official’s email address. He thanked him for his time. He picked up his briefcase with the proof he’d never been asked to show and walked out.
At the entrance of the building, he stopped for a moment. On either side of the doorway was a statue of a tiger. Stripes had been etched into their wooden bodies. Their expressions were frozen in garish snarls. Ammann reached down to touch the head of one of the tigers—an animal once defined by ferocity, now an ornament, lifeless and commodified.
Then he quickly lifted his hand and walked away.