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Senator mired in wildlife trafficking

Senator mired in wildlife trafficking

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senato.jpg

The two tigers that Von and Sophea are accused of trafficking

A

CPP Senator has been implicated in illegal wildlife trafficking following a series

of undercover sting operations that rescued seven tigers and three sun bears from

dealers in Phnom Penh.

It is alleged by suspects arrested in one of the raids that a CPP Senator, Nhim Vanda,

had bought two of the tigers, as well as a lion, from Thai dealers - and used his

vehicles and employees to transport these animals to Phnom Penh.

Military Police working for the Forest Crime Monitoring Unit (FCMU), in cooperation

with the conservation organization WildAid, confiscated four tigers being sold in

Phnom Penh on October 19.

Two suspected wildlife traffickers - Nhean Von, 45, and Hak Sophea, 32, both from

Poipet - are being held while a Municipal Court prosecutor investigates.

In a separate case, FCMU officers raided a house in downtown Phnom Penh, and confiscated

three more tigers and two sun bears on October 22. One suspect, Ly Huot, 67, was

arrested after allegedly selling the animals to undercover agents working with the

FCMU. Huot was questioned and freed later that same day.

In an interview with the Post, the men still being held on suspicion of trafficking

two of the tigers, Von and Sophea, said Senator Nhim Vanda, the former Head of the

National Committee for Disaster Management and an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen,

was deeply involved in the purchase and transport of the animals.

"[Thai wildlife traders] showed me photos of the tigers and asked me to find

buyers," said Von. "Then I met Uncle Nhim Vanda who asked me to buy a lion

for him. But the Thais said they would only sell the lion if we also bought the tigers.

"We got photos of the tigers from the Thais more than one month ago," said

Von. "Then we contacted Uncle [Vanda]. We had to come to his house a few times

because we kept missing him. It took us about one month to get the lion and tigers

for him."

Von said it was a Thai police official who brought two tigers and a lion to his home.

He said the tigers were transported across the border through a rabeang [a smugglers'

passage] near the Poipet border checkpoint between Thailand and Cambodia.

"[Cambodian border officials] also helped to bring the animals into Cambodia

because they heard they were for Uncle [Vanda]," said Von.

"But [Vanda] didn't really want the tigers, he has a lot already. He just asked

us to find buyers for them," said Von.

Sophea said he found foreign clients [actually undercover investigators] who agreed

to buy the tigers in Phnom Penh.

"Nhim Vanda ordered his bodyguard to transport [the animals] from Poipet to

Phnom Penh," said Von.

Sophea said Vanda gave his bodyguard approximately $7,000 to buy the lion and two

tigers.

Vanda issued and signed a letter giving the men permission to transport the tigers

and lion to Phnom Penh, said Sophea, adding that between Poipet and Phnom Penh their

vehicles and animal cargo were checked several times by police and Department of

Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) officials.

FCMU officers said only the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries can issue a permit

to transport wildlife.

Sophea said when they arrived at Vanda's house in Phnom Penh, Vanda ordered the lion

to be transported immediately to his private zoo in Tek Chhou, Kampot Province. Vanda

told the men the tigers should be moved to his land behind the Depot Market while

waiting for the buyers.

Sophea said he told Vanda the tigers were to be sold to some foreigners.

The suspects said that while in Phnom Penh they safeguarded the tigers at the Depot

Market site.

Von said the letter giving permission to transport the animals was kept by Vanda's

bodyguard. He said the bodyguard showed the letter to the Forestry Task Force police

after they were taken into custody and the police simply gave the letter back to

the bodyguard after reading it.

Rus Kannara, Deputy Chief of the DFW's Intervention Force, led the Military Police

team that arrested the suspects. Kannara said he was not aware of any letter from

Vanda giving his employees permission to transport the animals.

In a brief interview with the Post on October 19 Vanda's bodyguard, Nguon Sophal,

flashed his Military Police ID card and said had worked for Vanda for only about

one month and knew nothing of the tigers. He said when he left Vanda's house that

morning he believed he was going with Vanda's driver, Om Un, to fetch a load of coconuts.

Neither Un nor Sophal were held for further questioning, but Vanda's truck used to

transport the tigers remains impounded by the authorities.

The DFW's Deputy Director General, Chea Sam Ang, said future investigations would

not involve Nhim Vanda. "In this case only Vanda's driver and bodyguard are

involved, therefore we cannot accuse Nhim Vanda," he said.

Von told the Post he will never again be involved in wildlife trafficking. "Now

that we are in trouble, we want to offer the tigers to the Government so they can

let us free."

Repeated attempts to contact Vanda for comment before Post press time were unsuccessful.

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