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A Victory for Conservation: Malaysia’s “Godfather” of Wildlife Trafficking has Been Jailed

Animal enthusiasts and conservation advocates marked a significant victory in September 2023 as Teo Boon Ching, the 58-year-old “Godfather” of the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, received an 18-month jail sentence in the United States. Here’s the story.

Also known as “Zhang” or “Dato Sri”, Teo ran a two-decade international conspiracy for large-scale wildlife trafficking, specialising in trafficking and smuggling rhinoceros horns, elephant ivory and pangolin scales to clandestine markets, with the illegal goods fetching exorbitant prices.

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said Teo played a key role in logistics and helping to conceal and pack the goods for several criminal networks which smuggled the contraband items into Asia through Malaysian ports.

He was alleged to have used Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Thailand as transit hubs, as he later became linked to major seizures of pangolin scales and ivory in Hong Kong[1].

During those meetings, Ching (Teo) stated that he served as a middleman, acquiring rhinoceros horns poached by co-conspirators in Africa and shipping them to customers around the world for a per-kilogram fee. – US government statement[1]

In September of this year, Teo was sentenced to 18 months in jail by the US district court in New York after pleading guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit wildlife trafficking of at least 219kg of rhinoceros horns with an estimated value of about RM9.45 million (US$2 million)[1].

The jailing of this infamous criminal has been cited as a major blow to the illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia, a sign of hope in the global mission to put an end to poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The Illegal Wildlife Trade in Malaysia

The source, of course, is due to the country’s rich biodiversity. Everything from pangolins and bears to our tigers, sambar deer and birds are being hunted.Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for TRAFFIC, South East Asia[2]

According to a 2019 report by TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, some 900,000 pangolins were trafficked globally from 2000-2019 with significant proportions linked to Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, specifically, close to 30,000 kgs of pangolins were seized in Sabah in February 2019 from two locations — a warehouse and a factory[2].

Between the 7th and 13th of July 2020, four operations conducted by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) arrested seven people and seized at least 215 wildlife parts, 12 kg of wild meat and five whole animals, with some of these parts belonging to protected animals including tigers, sun bears and pangolins[3].

In August of 2021, authorities at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) seized eight live hornbills (including a baby helmeted hornbill, a critically endangered species hunted to the brink of extinction for its distinctive ivory-like bill casque) en route to international markets[4].

These cases show that Malaysia’s wildlife is still targeted by both local and foreign poachers, who are very often after highly endangered species. It makes enforcement actions like this all the more crucial. – Elizabeth John, TRAFFIC Senior Communications Officer[3]

Teo is just one of many criminals to take part in this illicit industry.

Malaysian animal curator and conservationist Darren Chow, who has dealt with wildlife poachers and smugglers, said Teo was an opportunist who was solely into the illicit trade for its lucrative returns.

The money is huge and the penalties for the offence when one is caught and found guilty is not severe enough to deter a wildlife smuggler. Teo probably took advantage of this. – Darren Chow, Malaysian animal curator and conservationist[5]

Rhinos are among the world’s most critically endangered animals despite efforts to save the species. Source. CNN

A Criminal Career

Teo first came into the news in Thailand in 2015 when he was arrested with about 135 kg of ivory in tow, valued at over RM650,000 at the time. Unfortunately, however, he was only punished with a fine and appeared to have carried on with business as usual[1].

The EIA report “Exposing the Hydra” revealed that he was a crucial “specialist transporter” and used Malaysia as a transit point by capitalising on his close connections with the local authorities. According to the report, Teo would receive animal parts from poachers and then package and smuggle them to clients in other Asian countries, raking in millions of ringgit in the process.

The EIA’s investigations showed that Teo charged between RM500 and RM800 per kilo depending on the type of animal part. For example, a tonne of elephant ivory from Africa would cost a staggering RM800,000 in shipping fees, which included obtaining the necessary customs approvals at the Johor Port and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport[5].

The EIA said Teo engaged Malaysia-based freight-forwarding companies to receive animal parts from Africa and knew exactly how to conceal them to evade detection by the authorities. For example, to conceal elephant tusks from Africa, Teo would instruct clients to pack the ivory in nylon bags and conceal them in a 20-foot container filled with at least eight tonnes of beans or peanuts[5].

Teo would also instruct his clients to purchase shipping containers rather than rent them to avoid the risk of scrutiny in the event the rental agreement expires. After these containers landed in Malaysia and had been cleared by authorities, they would then be transported to Teo’s private warehouses where the animal parts were repackaged and sent out to clients in other countries by air cargo[5].

EIA said that through these clandestine methods, Teo managed to create a lucrative career over two decades, successfully sneaking 80 such containers into Malaysia before smuggling their contents into China.

The EIA also learnt that Teo may have had a hand in the smuggling of several tonnes of pangolin scales that were recovered together with 7.2 tonnes of ivory in Hong Kong in July 2017, the largest such seizure in history[5].

A Body Blow to Wildlife Trafficking

Teo Boon Ching is escorted by police officers before a news conference in Bangkok on March 19, 2015. Source: CNN

Given Teo Boon Ching’s lengthy operations in illegal wildlife trade and previous enforcement failures, this is a great opportunity to bring him and his associates to justice.

For more than two decades, Chinese and Vietnamese organised crime networks have exploited Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries as transit hubs for illegally importing wildlife commodities from Africa into Asia. The relationship with specialist transporters such as Teo Boon Ching is key to successful clearance in these countries. – Mary Rice, EIA Executive Director[6]

Last year, Teo was arrested on June 29th in Bangkok, just seven years after his previous arrest in Thailand[7]. He was then extradited to the USA in October 2022 to face charges linked to illegal wildlife parts operations and money laundering. One of these charges is being involved in a conspiracy to traffic in more than 70 kg of rhinoceros horns valued at more than RM3.37 mil (US$725,000)[8].

A statement read:

“Teo was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wildlife trafficking, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and two counts of money laundering, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.”[8]

It wouldn’t be until October of this year that Teo would finally be jailed. EIA UK Executive Director Mary Rice, in reaction to this sentence, called it “a commendable result and takes a key player out of the hugely profitable wildlife trafficking business.”[9]

Chinese and Vietnamese organised crime networks have long exploited Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries as transit hubs for smuggling illegal wildlife commodities from Africa into Asia. The jailing of Teo Boon Ching and related US Treasury Department sanctions against him and his alleged trafficking organisation constitute a body-blow to their ability to function. – Mary Rice, EIA Executive Director[9]

Olivia Swaak-Goldman, executive director of the non-profit Wildlife Justice Commission, concurred with this, saying Teo’s conviction “sends a strong message that wildlife crime will no longer be tolerated.”[10]

His arrest and imprisonment has significantly disrupted the illegal wildlife trade. – Olivia Swaak-Goldman, executive director, Wildlife Justice Commission[10]

Chow is a little bit more apprehensive.

A jail sentence of 18 months for transporting the horns of dozens of endangered rhinoceros that were killed for them is merely a slap on the wrist. – Darren Chow, Malaysian animal curator and conservationist[5]

Nonetheless, the removal of an important middleman will strike a major blow to the wildlife trafficking circuit in Southeast Asia. Besides disrupting the flow of this illicit trade, it will also demonstrate that the “big names” are not invincible and that it is only a matter of time before justice comes knocking on their doorstep.

But this is just a small step in a bigger mission. People, governments and NGOs must be able to work together with each other to truly stamp out wildlife trafficking, not just in Malaysia but the whole world.

The first step to achieving this is to raise awareness of the threat of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade and encourage citizens to report wildlife crimes. The process is long and difficult but as the “Godfather’s” jailing shows, it will eventually bear fruit.

Organisations Combating The Threat Of Poaching

The fight to protect our country’s wildlife is never-ending. Here are some organisations that are battling to protect Malaysia’s natural heritage.

  • MYCAT: It is a joint programme by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia, Wildlife Society of Selangor (WILD) and WWF-Malaysia, supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (DWNP).
  • The Pangolin Reports: an international network of journalists, working on a series of reports to document the poaching, smuggling, and consumption of pangolins. The project covers more than ten countries and territories in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
  • Coalition to end Wildlife Trafficking Online: a coalition of the world’s biggest e-commerce, technology, and social media companies, working together with wildlife experts at WWF, TRAFFIC, and the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW) to shut down online marketplaces for wildlife traffickers.

Explore our sources:

  1. N. Prabu. (2023). Jailing of ‘Godfather’ Teo seen as major blow to illegal wildlife trade. FMT. Link.
  2. E. Koshy. (2020). Malaysia and Southeast Asia at the heart of massive wildlife trade. New Straits Times. Link.
  3. TRAFFIC. (2020). Raids net wanted poacher and hundreds of wildlife parts in Malaysia. Link.
  4. C. Cowan. (2021). Malaysian hornbill bust reveals live trafficking trend in Southeast Asia. Mongabay. Link.
  5. C. Ramendran. (2023). A blow to illegal wildlife trade. The Star. Link.
  6. EIA. (2022). Police in Thailand arrest Teo Boon Ching, a major Malaysian wildlife trafficking suspect. Link.
  7. The Star. (2022). Alleged Malaysian ‘godfather’ of wildlife trading arrested in Bangkok. Link.
  8. The Star. (2022). Malaysian extradited to US for alleged wildlife trafficking. Link.
  9. EIA. (2023). Jailing of international wildlife crime kingpin Teo Boon Ching is a body-blow to illegal trade. Link.
  10. H. Chen. (2023). ‘Godfather’ of illicit wildlife trade jailed in US for trafficking rhino horns worth $2 million. CNN. Link.

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