A suspect has allegedly confessed to owning part of a haul of rare wildlife pelts, bones and parts discovered this week in a Chinese Chamber of Commerce office in Phnom Penh that environmental experts say was likely operated as a sophisticated business and destined to fuel the illicit trade in China.
Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and CEO of the Wildlife Alliance, said that late Monday night one of those questioned about the illicit items “confessed to ownership”, though a government official denied this.
Among the items confiscated in Monday’s raid at the China Sichuan and Chongqing Chamber of Commerce in the capital’s Tuol Sangke commune were 19 clouded leopard skins, 10 otter skins, four eagle claws, six Asian golden cat paws, six live tortoises and three macaques.
A source with knowledge of the sting told the Post that the offenders, including the suspect who has allegedly confessed, may avoid any legal action and instead pay a joint penalty of between $20,000 and $30,000. But Khem Vuthyravong, planning director of the Forestry Administration’s Anti-Wildlife Trafficking Department, said the questioning of three Chinese nationals who lived at the property resulted in no confessions.
“We just asked them to cooperate with us in order to find the owner,” he said.
Duy Khov, a Council of Ministers official whose wife owns the property, yesterday spoke of confusion over the raid.
“I don’t know who it belonged to, but I rented my house to a Chinese-Cambodian man named Liu Erli to open the Chinese association,” he said.
Multiple local residents yesterday said a soup shop used to operate out of the property but only attracted clients in luxury vehicles. For the past few months, they said, the doors have been closed.
Post reporters were not allowed inside.
Gauntlett of Wildlife Alliance said the size of the seizure and types of animals involved suggested it was a “large-scale operation”. “Some of these skins were very fresh and being dried on site.… There were permanent cages on site [suggesting a] regular wildlife trade,” she said.
Gauntlett said all species found in the raid could technically have been found in Cambodia, but some, like the golden cats, have not been seen for years.
She added that it was “very likely” the items were destined for China, a major global wildlife consumer.
Chris Shepherd, regional director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, agreed, adding that a number of “worrying species” were involved, which he said was likely bought from poachers or middlemen.
“What’s really alarming is the number of cat skins in the seizure – the clouded leopard and the golden cat. Numbers like this are going to have a serious impact on the species,” he said. “Also of major concern are the otters, which are being decimated throughout Southeast Asia to supply demand for fur hats in China.”