A Vietnamese timber trader wanted by authorities in Togo and by INTERPOL in connection with a historic African ivory trafficking case is living in Ho Chi Minh City, National Geographic has uncovered.
The January 2014 ivory trafficking case involves the largest ivory seizure on the African continent since a global ivory ban took effect in 1990. The suspect, Dao Van Bien, and his wife run a major timber import operation in Vietnam, and Dao continues to travel to West Africa despite an Interpol red notice seeking his apprehension for suspected involvement in an attempt to smuggle a record-setting quantity of ivory out of Togo last January.
On January 23 and 29, 2014, Togolese authorities at the Port of Lome intercepted containers that were part of a Vietnam-bound timber shipment and discovered tons of illegal ivory tusks representing hundreds of dead African elephants hidden inside the metal containers. (See "Togo Makes Second Record Ivory Seizure.")
One container of timber had been declared to be cashew nuts. An x-ray showed timber—and ivory.
Agents with Togo's Office Against Narcotics and Money Laundering (OCTRIB) seized 4.2 tons (3.8 metric tons) of ivory, representing an estimated 380 or more elephants.
The raw ivory is worth millions of dollars in Asia, its chief market, where ivory is carved to make everything from chopsticks and bangles to sculptures worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, resulting in the illegal killing of more than 30,000 elephants each year. (Read "Blood Ivory" in National Geographic magazine.)
They also found 50 pounds (22.5 kilograms) of dried pangolin scales, equal to scores of the spiny anteaters, a mammal so coveted on the Asian market it's been called the most trafficked mammal on Earth.
INTERPOL Red Notice
The multimillion-dollar seizure in January occurred after a relatively simple mistake by the smugglers. According to Togolese officials, one container of timber had been falsely declared to be cashew nuts. An x-ray of the container showed timber—and something more: ivory.
Togolese enforcement officers arrested two local shipping agents, who led them to a house in Lome occupied by several Vietnamese timber traders, including the shipment's owner, 44-year-old Dinh Huu Khao. (See "Efforts to Curb Ivory Trafficking Spreading, but Killing Continues.")
Dinh was found in his home with more than $165,000 in cash in five different currencies, along with seven cell phones, and two laptops. Agents arrested Dinh and charged him with illicit trafficking of ivory and wood, and forgery.
In May, INTERPOL issued a purple notice describing the Togo-Vietnam smuggling operation and alerting international authorities to be on the lookout for two alleged members of the criminal network: Vu Quang Thai and Dao Van Bien.
INTERPOL subsequently issued a red notice on Dao Van Bien, alerting international law enforcement that Dao was wanted in Togo for prosecution on charges of illegal wildlife trafficking. An INTERPOL red notice seeks international assistance in locating and arresting suspects.
Following the Paper Trail
I visited Dinh recently in a Togolese prison as part of an upcoming National Geographic documentary on the ivory trade. He told me that Dao Van Bien, 39, was his boss in the timber business.
Dinh had moved from Vietnam to Togo in 2011 to join Dao in exporting raw logs to Vietnam. The two shipped multi-ton timber containers to Vietnam hundreds of times, Dinh said. (Related: "Q&A: To Stem Africa's Illegal Ivory Trade to Asia, Focus on Key Shipping Ports.")
According to Dinh, Dao returned to Vietnam sometime in 2012, leaving Dinh in charge of their export business in Togo.
In September I followed the trail from Togo to Vietnam, hoping to identify the buyer behind the four-ton illegal ivory shipment. Since four tons of ivory can be worth well over $3 million, I considered it unlikely that this was the smuggler's first time. Whoever was behind the shipment was a kingpin.
My search started in Ho Chi Minh City with the company named in shipping records as the intended recipient of the seized container, Dat Long Agricultural Produce and Wood Import-Export Company, Ltd.
I followed the trail to Vietnam. Whoever was behind the shipment was a kingpin.
But when I arrived at the address on the outskirts of the city, I found a small rice shop whose salesperson had no knowledge of a timber business. Before she worked there, she said, the building had been a coffee shop.
Dat Long, it appeared, was a ghost company. Shippers of illicit goods commonly use false addresses, but they sometimes use real telephone numbers. The telephone number listed on the timber shipment's paperwork for Dat Long was strangely dead too.
But Dinh had sent a FedEx package from Togo to Dao's wife, Ha Thi Ngoc Anh, using the same phone number. It was possible that Dao's wife was the contact for shipments to Dat Long company, suggesting that Dat Long was more than just a timber customer: It was part of the same enterprise.
A search of tax records in Ho Chi Minh City revealed a working telephone number, and that number enabled my translator to introduce me into the Vietnamese timber trading world as an American restorer of luxury homes interested in a new supplier of exotic woods.
Soon I found myself riding on the back of a motorbike driven through the back streets of Ho Chi Minh City by a Vietnamese timber salesman on my way to inspect his merchandise.
My timber salesman was a chubby man with a broad smile named Viet. His company dealt exclusively in imported African timber, from such war-torn countries as Mozambique and Angola as well as from Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
"This," Viet said, indicating a stack of teak taller than I am, "is all used for AK-47s." He smiled and gave the universal sign of a machine gun in action. When I replied that some friends of mine had pistol grips made of elephant ivory, Viet put his wrists together in another universal gesture: handcuffs.
I wanted to see his most valuable wood, and so we were off again on his motorbike. This time, instead of an open-air timber yard, we arrived at a large concrete building with a steel door. A sign beside the door read Hai Than Dat, a company name I recognized as the recipient of hundreds of tons of logs shipped from Togo by both Dinh and Dao.
Viet unlocked the door and slid it open. Inside were 40 containers' worth of rosewood logs from Mozambique, all neatly stacked.
"I'm interested," I said.
Viet called his boss, whose name, Le Van Nghia, I recognized from corporate tax records listing him as a director of Dat Long company. Dat Long and Hai Than Dat appeared to be connected.
After confirming that I was a legitimate customer, the boss telephoned a woman he said was the top boss. I recognized her name too. It was Dao's wife.
"You're in luck," Viet said. "Ms. Anh's husband, Bien [Dao Van Bien], is just back from West Africa. They want to meet you tonight." He gave me the address of a coffee shop.
I showed up on time that evening, but Dao and his wife did not.
"I forgot I have a family obligation," Dao told me over the phone in perfect English.
That sounded like a weak excuse. There was a simple explanation for Dao's sudden refusal to meet me: The man on INTERPOL's red notice had gotten cold feet.
After locating Dao, I rented a car and drove north to Mong Cai City, a notorious smuggling town on the border between Vietnam and China where Dinh and Dao had exported large quantities of timber.
There, I stood on the banks of the Ka Long River and watched boats loaded with goods easily circumvent customs and unload their contents in the world's biggest consumer of illegal ivory, China.
Vietnam-Bound Ivory Funded Seleka Rebels
No one can know for certain where the ivory seized in January was ultimately headed, but something shocking can be said about where the ivory had come from.
Preliminary DNA analysis indicates the ivory was predominantly from forest elephants, a central African species whose population has already seen a 65 percent decline in the past decade. (See "100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds.")
More tragically, Dinh's timber shipment included ivory DNA-linked to the elephants of Dzanga Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic, an almost holy place for forest elephants to gather, long considered a peaceful oasis off-limits to poaching.
Togo's ivory seizure appears to offer an unprecedented link between a terrorist attack and an ivory seizure.
But in March 2013 elephant-poaching Seleka rebels, who had overthrown the republic's president that month, descended on the reserve and killed 26 elephants. (See "The Fate of Forest Elephants: Andrea Turkalo Shares Her Concerns.")
And so Togo's January ivory seizure appears to offer an unprecedented link between a specific terrorist attack and an ivory seizure. It also means it had taken about nine months for the ivory hacked off slaughtered elephants in the bush to make its way into Dinh's shipping containers packed for export.
Two in Lome Prison
Dinh, who remains in a Togolese prison awaiting a criminal trial scheduled for December, denies knowledge of the ivory or pangolin scales hidden inside his shipment.
Instead, he says, it was his local shipping agent who hid the ivory. As to how tons of elephant tusks and thousands of pangolin scales would be picked up in Vietnam without the knowledge of the Dat Long company, Dinh had no response.
Dinh's shipping agent, Mohammed Alamou, is being held in the same Lome prison as he is. Alamou says he thought he was loading sacks of food, not ivory, into the containers. He accused a third man, Vu Quang Thai, of directing him to load sacks of food among the logs.
Togolese authorities have a warrant out on Vu Quang Thai, who fled the country in January. Asked if it seemed strange to lift four tons of sacks that could not have felt like food into a timber shipment, Alamou responded, "I don't know what those people eat."