Ministry Pledges to Bring Justice to Officials Accused of Smuggling Monkeys into US

Two Cambodian officials have been indicted by the USA of conspiring to smuggle crab-eating monkeys into America, as one senior official was enroute to an international conference about illegal trade in endangered species
US Embassy in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
US Embassy in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The Ministry of Agriculture has pledged to bring about justice after one on-duty Cambodian official was accused of an alleged conspiracy to smuggle crab-eating monkeys into the USA as he made his way to Panama for an international convention on illegal wildlife trafficking.

According to a statement on Thursday, the Ministry of Agriculture said it was surprised and saddened to learn of the arrest.

Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman, Chum Sounry, said on Friday authorities are currently in contact with relevant parties in the US.

He said, “Regarding the case of our officer being detained in New York, I would like to inform you that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cambodian Embassy in Washington and New York are working through diplomatic and legal mediations to protect and seek justice for our detained officer while completing official missions. At the same time, our embassy is also seeking access to the individual and is also seeking a defense lawyer.”

Kry Masphal, Deputy-Director of the Wildlife and Biodiversity Department, was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York while in transit to Panama to represent Cambodia at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Keo Omaliss, head of the Forestry Administration, has also been accused of an alleged conspiracy to smuggle crab-eating monkeys into the USA, according to a statement from the US Justice Department.

The Ministry of Agriculture's statement said that it upholds CITES convention's principles and rules. However, it is “ironic” that Kry was detained for such an alleged plot as Cambodia and the United States have good diplomatic relations.

Keo Omaliss, head of the Forestry Administration, in a photo posted to his Facebook page on September 5, 2022
Keo Omaliss, head of the Forestry Administration, in a photo posted to his Facebook page on September 5, 2022

Crab-eating monkeys are commonly scattered across Cambodia, including at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh. Since 2005, the monkeys have been farmed in Cambodia and exported for pharmaceutical research into new medicines, vaccines, and cosmetic products, it explained.

“They [monkeys] are not caught from the wilderness and smuggled out, but farmed in decent manners with respect to good hygiene and health standards so as to preserve their gene pool,” it said. “As obliged by the CITES convention and applicable laws, only the next generation of monkeys are exported.”

Moreover, the Cambodian CITES management authority has allowed exports in accordance with both domestic and international laws and regulations, it added.

“As for their imports into the US, the import companies should be responsible for complying with all US procedures,” it said.

On November 16, two Cambodian officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and six co-conspirators were indicted for their roles in the alleged primate smuggling scheme, according to a US Department of Justice statement.

It said that a collecting quota of 3,000 "unofficial" monkeys is allowed, for which MAFF officials are paid in cash. Additionally, the indictment's conspiracy allegation lists 31 representatives "overt acts" committed by one or more of the co-conspirators in their efforts to carry out their alleged illegal business.

“These include meetings, financial transactions, and shipments of hundreds of macaques - wild caught mixed in with captive bred - to locations in Florida and Texas under false documents. Wild long-tailed macaques were also said to have been delivered by defendant Kry Masphal and other employees of MAFF to a facility in Pursat, Cambodia,” the statement said.

Between December 2017 and September 2022, Kry is accused of participating in conversations on the price of wild macaques to be captured and delivered to monkey breeding facilities run by co-conspirators, including Vanny Bio Research (Cambodia) Corporation Ltd., and he was paid for the illegal monkeys by the co-conspirators.

“The macaque is already recognized as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” Juan Antonio Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida said in the statement. “The practice of illegally taking them from their habitat to end up in a lab is something we need to stop. Greed should never come before responsible conservation. Cases like this put us in a position where we can make a difference.”

The statement added that, if convicted, each defendant faces up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge in count one and up to twenty years on each of the smuggling charges in counts 2 through 8.

Additionally, there is a possible fine of up to $250,000 per count, or twice the defendants' financial gain.