The Cambodian government and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said they will make the “utmost effort” to seek justice for a Cambodian official arrested in John F Kennedy International Airport in New York for allegedly conspiring to smuggle crab-eating macaque monkeys (Macaca fascicularis) into the US.

In a press statement released late on November 17, the ministry said it was “surprised and saddened” to have learned about the arrest through the media.

The move came after the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida on November 16 issued a statement saying that two officials from Cambodia’s agriculture ministry had been indicted along with six others for conspiring to smuggle wildlife into the US.

The US Department of Justice identified the two officials as Omaliss Keo, director-general of the Forestry Administration (FA), and Masphal Kry, head of the FA’s Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity.

Kry was held while in transit to attend the meeting of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Panama.

“It is a big irony that someone who was going to attend an official meeting at the UN forum to protect endangered species of wild fauna and flora has been arrested for this alleged conspiracy when both Cambodia and the US have been maintaining good diplomatic relations,” the ministry said in the statement, adding that Cambodia upholds CITES convention's principles and laws.

The ministry explained that crab-eating macaque monkeys are scattered all over Cambodia and found in the wilderness and in suburban and urban areas, including the Wat Phnom national heritage site in central Phnom Penh.

It added that since 2005, the monkeys have been “farmed” in Cambodia and exported for pharmaceutical research to discover things like new medicines and vaccines, as well as to test cosmetic products. They are not captured in the wilderness and smuggled out, but instead bred and raised in captivity under humane conditions that are hygienic and conform to international standards, while the breeding is done carefully to preserve their gene pool.

It said only monkeys born and raised in captivity are exported, as is obliged by the CITES convention and applicable laws.

It further said that the Cambodian CITES management authority has allowed these exports to take place based on both domestic and international laws and regulations. The import companies bringing the macaques into the US are ultimately the parties responsible for compliance with all US laws and procedures, it stressed.

“Hence, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Royal Government of Cambodia will make the utmost effort to seek justice for our officials, especially those on official duty representing the country according to international conventions,” it said, adding that it will also ensure that rules and regulations as well as international conventions are followed and respected.