A Malaysian citizen and his ivory connection to Africa

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Even those with only a sporadic interest in international wildlife crime are left seated when either the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) or the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) raise a glass, figuratively or literally, to the arrest of an international wildlife trafficker and take it in it note. On June 29, the Royal Thai Police along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service made such an arrest. Teo Boon Ching, a Malaysian national, has been arrested for wildlife trafficking and money laundering. He is to be held pending extradition to the United States.

Although no information on specific allegations has been released, the EIA describes Teo Boon Ching as a “key player in the illegal wildlife trade between Africa and Asia”. Thai authorities stated: “[Teo Boon Ching] had no exact place of residence. Always traveling from one country to another, especially in Africa, he was elusive [track].”

So who exactly is Teo Boon Ching and what is his meaning? Awaiting extradition to the United States and in connection with the abolition of the 2019 West African cartel (recently convicted in New York), it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that Teo Boon Ching’s arrest was related. The EIA, in its Exposing the Hydra report, refers to Teo Boon Ching as a key member of a Vietnamese wildlife trade consortium playing the role of a “specialist transporter.” His favorite contraband items were ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales. Teo Boon Ching has reportedly been in the business for 20 years, running a clearance, transport and sales service for illegal wildlife products from Malaysia to Laos and China.

With Teo Boon Ching as the special transporter and Moazu Kromah of the West African cartel as the main supplier of ivory and rhino horn in Africa, it would only be logical that their paths would have crossed. The connection becomes even stronger when you consider that was one of Kromah’s customers Vixay Keosavang. Known as the “Pablo Escobar of the wildlife trade,” Keosavang is based in Laos and has been a target of US authorities for years.

Despite his 20-year tenure in the business, public records have revealed that Teo Boon Ching had only been arrested once before on wildlife charges. In 2015, Thai authorities arrested Kampol “Riam” Noithanom with 134.7 kg of ivory hidden in an ice bucket mounted on the back of a pickup truck. The capture took place about 250 km from the Lao border and 50 km from the Cambodian border.

Subsequent investigations led to the arrests of Teo Boon Ching and an accomplice, Sirichai Sridanond, three months later on March 19. It was alleged that Teo Boon Ching and Sridanond delivered the ivory to Noithanom for onward transport. Reports of the completion of these charges differ, but in the worst case, Teo Boon Ching received a small fine.

Malaysian police read an arrest warrant when they arrested Teo Boon Ching, 58, second right, in Bangkok. (included)

It is interesting that during a press conference at the time of his arrest, officials stated: “Mr. Teo Boon Ching has made numerous 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, namely Kenya, have led us to believe that this is an African transnational ivory trade network.”

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

The EIA report Exposing the Hydra provides an insight into the work of Teo Boon Ching and his value to the Vietnamese syndicate. Teo Boon Ching worked with Nguyen Tien Son, who operated in Congo, Laos, Mozambique, Nigeria and Vietnam, and Le Thi Thank Hai, another transportation specialist who mainly transported wildlife smuggling from Laos to Vietnam and China.

But he also provided his logistical services to Chinese organized crime groups. He told EIA undercover officers that he was instrumental in recovering two containers of pangolin scales that were en route to Hong Kong as a sister shipment of 7.2 tons of ivory were confiscated in 2017. Typically, wildlife traders keep the same logistical “path” (similar route, receiver, shipper) until there is a reason to change it. In this case, the seizure of the 7.2 tons of ivory would have alerted law enforcement and customs to several pending smuggled goods by sea.

Teo Boon Ching said he was approached by a Chinese businessman named “Lin” from Xianyou to see if several other containers of pangolin scales could be saved from confiscation. Teo Boon Ching contacted his connections in Nigeria and two containers or pangolin sheds were diverted in time to avoid their confiscation. Four other containers, however were confiscated: two containers containing 8,000 kg of pangolin scales in Sabah, Malaysia on 29 July 2017 and two containers containing 3,000 kg of ivory and 5,000 kg of pangolin scales, also in Sabah, Malaysia on 29 August. All the containers, including the two 7,200 kg of ivory seized in Hong Kong, came from Nigeria. The 7,200 kg ivory shipment was finally connected to the Kromah network.

The Chinese businessman identified as “Lin” may very well be Lin Zhiyong, who is known to have had 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 entitled “Bring down the dragon“. Lin Zhiyong is currently in a Chinese prison serving a life sentence in connection with his wildlife-related criminal activities.

And while Teo Boon Ching only boasted about one confiscation of the 80 container shipments he personally handled (easily over 80 tons of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales), his Achilles’ heel may well prove to be the smaller air freight shipments he organized at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) from East and West Africa. It is known that when Kromah was first arrested 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 from three different flights departing from Kinshasa, DRC via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. The total weight of the ivory was 1,001 kg, all three shipments were declared as specimens of wood and all for the same fictitious Johor recipient. The same Johor recipient was the intended “buyer” of 1,286 kg of ivory seized in 2016 in Juba, South Sudan, also destined for KLIA. This shipment was directly attributable to the Kromah network and contained ivory from the Burundian government’s supposedly secure ivory store.

A week later another seizure at KLIA, this time from Entebbe International Airport but via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and 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 was recovered from KLIA, consisting of 254 tusks in 17 wooden boxes. This Turkish Airline flight had departed from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and had again transited through Istanbul. The delivery had been declared as samples of wood, again similar to the confiscation in July 2016. Another similarity besides the logistics was the tusk origin. DNA analysis showed that the tusks were mostly savannah elephant ivory from Zambia. This was atypical at the time, as most savanna ivory analyzed came from Mozambique, Tanzania, and southern Kenya.

There were at least three other flights to KLIA between March 2016 and October 2016, two from Entebbe and one from South Sudan, according to 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 details of the indictment. But one thing is for sure. 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 hopefully more will fall.

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