Feds Say Smugglers Snatched Wild Monkeys for Illicit Sales to U.S. Pharma Labs

Photo by Etienne Gosse via Flickr
A long-tailed macaque nursing her baby.
Two Cambodian wildlife officials have been indicted on felony charges by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly smuggling wild-caught monkeys into the United States.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed the indictment on November 16 after defendant Masphal Kry, a deputy director of the department of wildlife within the Cambodian Forestry Administration, was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Omaliss Keo, the director general of the Cambodian Forestry Administration's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Fisheries, was originally indicted in July with six alleged co-conspirators.

A superseding indictment was filed on November 3 to charge Kry.

According to the Department of Justice, Kry and Keo conspired with the owner of a primate supply organization and five of its employees to export wild long-tailed macaques, falsely labeled as captive-bred, into the U.S for profit.  

The monkey supplier based in Hong Kong, Vanny Resources Holdings, worked with black market collectors in Cambodia and Thailand, who took monkeys from national parks and other protected areas to launder them through Cambodian entities for export to U.S. labs, according to the DOJ.

The long-tailed macaques, otherwise known as crab-eating macaques, are native to Southeast Asia and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Animals under CITES protection require special permits to be imported into the U.S. In this case, hundreds of monkeys — wild-caught mixed with captive bred — were exported to labs in Texas and South Florida under false CITES export permits.

"The practice of illegally taking [macaques] from their habitat to end up in a lab is something we need to stop," said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "Greed should never come before responsible conservation."

Edward Grace, the assistant director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said this investigation "exposes the large-scale, illegal laundering of wild long-tailed macaques for use in biomedical and pharmaceutical research." He added that taking animals out of their natural habitats and smuggling them into the country puts the health of U.S. residents and wildlife in danger.

Seven shipments of monkeys were sent to Miami for biomedical and pharmaceutical research from 2018 through late 2021.

The first shipment to Miami on July 25, 2018, had 150 macaques at a declared value of $306,000. The next two shipments to Miami of 360 macaques each came between August 2018 and May 2019 — and were declared at $661,680 and $714,600, respectively.

In February 2020, 288 long-tailed macaques, of which 138 were wild caught, were delivered to a location in Miami. Another delivery of 396 macaques, including 323 illegally captured monkeys, was sent to Miami again in November 2020, according to the DOJ. The February shipment's declared value was $697,500 whereas November's was $1.2 million.

The last two Miami shipments, each containing more than 500 monkeys, arrived in May 2021 and December 2021. The May shipment had a declared value of $1.8 million and the December shipment was valued at $4 million. The indictment did not identify the entity or entities that received the monkeys in Miami.

The eight defendants are being charged with seven counts of smuggling and one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Each defendant faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge and an additional 20 years on each of the seven smuggling charges if convicted.

Miami has long been at the epicenter of illegal animal trafficking and the exotic animal trade. Because Miami International Airport is one of the most popular airports in the country for importing exotic animals, it has a Fish & Wildlife Service K-9 unit dedicated to "sniffing out" animal trafficking.