Hidden camera footage has emerged showing what U.S. prosecutors say is clear involvement by a senior Cambodian official in running a research monkey smuggling operation.
In the video, whose existence was first reported by RFA last year, former Cambodian Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity head Kry Masphal is seen facilitating an illicit drop-off of long-tailed macaques at a breeding facility in northern Cambodia, even offering advice on how to move the endangered species more efficiently.
“Why don’t you make another road?” Kry is seen asking a worker. “If you make another road, this means [it’s] more safe for your smuggling.”
The footage was filmed in 2019 by a confidential informant for U.S. investigators and submitted by prosecutors as evidence against Kry in a high-profile U.S. government smuggling case against him and other conspirators.
It was obtained from the court by animal rights group PETA, which shared it with RFA.
In aviator sunglasses and a buttoned-down blue checkered shirt, Kry carries himself in the video with a swagger a world apart from the nervous figure who sat in a Miami court two weeks ago listening to his lawyers fight to exclude the contents of his mobile phone from his upcoming trial.
Kry was director of Wildlife and Biodiversity in Cambodia’s Forestry Administration at the time of his arrest at New York’s JFK airport in November 2022, where he was transiting on his way to a conference in Panama on the protection of endangered species.
He has been charged with being party to a plot to launder wild-caught long-tailed macaques – a primate prized for medical research – from the jungles of Cambodia and Thailand into U.S. research laboratories.
In part to conserve dwindling wild populations, but also to preserve the integrity of scientific findings, only captive-bred monkeys can be used in medical experiments.
Also accused are Kry’s boss, Forestry Administration Director General Keo Omaliss and six individuals involved in the management of the Chinese-owned Vanny Group’s monkey farms in Cambodia.
Kry has pleaded not guilty, while the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees the Forestry Administration, and the Vanny Group have both denied any improper activity took place.
However, the video that has emerged among a mountainous pile of evidence against Kry contains damning proof of his involvement and acknowledges the illegal nature of the operation.
Kry is seen helping to offload crates of monkeys from the back of a pickup truck at what prosecutors say is Vanny Group’s monkey farm in Pursat province.
The person working with him asks how many monkeys Kry has brought with him “this time.”
“Twenty-four,” Kry replies. “We cannot take more because many observers, we have to do [it] very quick and go very fast.”
In a last-ditch attempt to avoid a trial, Kry’s lawyers – whose firm has been a registered lobbyist for the Cambodian government since January 2022 – have pushed for the case to be dismissed on the grounds that he was acting on orders from his government.
For conservationists, the stratagem was a confirmation of their worst fears: that the poaching and laundering of wild-caught macaques from Cambodia was not the behavior of a few rotten apples but the de facto policy of the government.
“This means that there is no safe, legitimate and legal supply of monkeys,” Lisa Jones-Engel, a primatologist with PETA, told RFA. “When you have somebody like Kry involved, working so out in the open, saying, ‘This is great for our smuggling.’ From a government official who signs on the dotted line?”
“Kry is just another run-of-the-mill monkey juggler, there was nothing that distinguished him from every other person on that video,” she added.
An RFA investigation last month showed the deep penetration of the primate industry into Cambodia’s ruling elite, from the immediate family of Prime Minister Hun Sen down through the relevant regulatory and enforcement bodies that are supposed to be policing the trade.
Agriculture Minister Dith Tina did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why a public official might need to hide their activities from observers.
Vanny has denied the U.S. prosecutors’ central allegation that wild monkeys were laundered through its farm and passed off as captive bred ones for export.
However, in conversation with RFA earlier this year an employee at the farm said that in 2022 the practice became almost routine as demand, amped up by spiking prices, vastly outstripped legitimate supply.
“There weren’t enough monkeys before because demand was so high, so we bought them from a nearby mountain,” the person said, not wanting to be identified for fear of retaliation.
“If they had good eyes, a good body, good fur, then we exported them,” they added. “We have a lab to weigh them and do blood tests to see if they have diseases or not.”
The unsealing of the indictment against Kry, Keo and Vanny’s management last November halted exports from the farm, the employee said.
Prior to that, they added, the farm’s outbound shipments in 2022 regularly included between 100 and 200 “mountain monkeys,” in clear violation of international laws and regulations governing trade in the species.
The employee was insistent that this was something that only took place in 2022. However, the U.S. prosecutors’ case alleges illicit activity to have taken place between December 2017 and January 2022.
Kry’s case is due to go to trial in Miami in June.
Edited by Boer Deng.