Phan Huynh Anh Khoa spent 2009 minding his parent’s bonsai shop on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Every morning, an old man would park outside the store and unload cage after cage of squirrels onto the street. The squirrel business was brisk, and by sunset, the old man would pack up his stall and drive away with barely any rodents left.
Khoa, then a teenage high school dropout, didn’t know much, but he thought he knew business. He whiled away the dull hours at work trawling Vietnamese e-commerce sites, dreaming of something bigger — a racket that wouldn’t mean spending his days strapping miniature trees to the backs of motorbikes.
Online he had seen dogs, cats, and reptiles for sale. These websites sold animals like red dragon flowerhorn fish, foot-long baby crocodiles, a lone reindeer standing in hay, and a five-month-old macaque living in a green bucket. The animals were prized for being rare, unusual, and interesting, and they made their owners interesting by association.
The next time the old man parked, Khoa approached him. “I’ll buy all of your squirrels,” he said, gesturing to the 20-odd rodents stacked up in cages on the back of the man’s bike. “On one condition. You have to go set up shop somewhere else.”
The following day, he booted up his computer and got to work. He uploaded images of the animals: Pallas’s squirrels, ground squirrels and red-cheeked squirrels with brown fur, fat-cheeks, and black, marble eyes, to the Vietnamese e-commerce sites 5s and Thucung. He priced them between $4 to $9 (100,000 to 200,000 dong) and before long, he was selling dozens a day, buying in bulk from wholesale traders in central Vietnam.
Given his ambition, squirrels were never going to be enough for Khoa. As he began to look further afield for suppliers, he noticed even greater opportunity in more unusual species, like monkeys and slow lorises: small, big-eyed endangered primates that look like lint from a vacuum cleaner, with bodies just as fragile.
By the age of 20, Khoa was pulling in around $1,088 (25 million dong) a month. He had two people on his payroll, and was receiving hundreds of phone calls a day. But he wanted to expand even more. So he met up with one of his suppliers, Hieu — not his real name — who travelled to Thailand to source stock. Over beers, Khoa convinced Hieu to take him on one of his buying trips. For Hieu, the trip was a favor, a way of showing off. But for Khoa, it was the chance to climb another rung of the illicit wildlife ladder. “He thought I didn’t know anything, that I was kind of dumb,” Khoa said “So he wasn’t worried about me.”
The pair crossed the border into Cambodia, passing Phnom Penh and into Thailand. They then made their way to their final destination, Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. At the front of the market were hundreds of stalls and vendors selling elephant-print pants and cheap T-shirts to tourists. At the back, behind the stools and in the darkness, Khoa and Hieu discovered a menagerie of wild species. They found fennec foxes pacing back and forth in cages, snakes waiting patiently in plastic containers and sugar gliders anxiously staring from their glass walls.
Khoa soon ditched Hieu and began running the route himself. He bought directly from suppliers, handling both wholesale and retail parts of the business — the kind of vertical integration that young e-commerce companies dream of.
It was a big step up for Khoa, and it wouldn’t be his last. What really accelerated his rise from a small-scale squirrel peddler to one of the country’s most notorious wildlife traders was Facebook.
In 2010, as Khoa’s business was just taking off, 27 million of Vietnam’s 88 million citizens were online. Vietnam’s e-commerce industry, however, was just finding its feet. Revenue from online shopping in Vietnam grew from $700 million in 2012 to $2.2 billion in 2013, and Khoa was along for the ride. By then, he had cornered the local online market, and was known by collectors — he says — as “The King of Squirrels.” At this point, platforms and technology were evolving, and many of Vietnam’s early e-commerce sites were giving way to slicker, more user-friendly outlets like Tiki and Lazada, and most importantly, Facebook. By 2013, that platform had 22 million users, nearly a quarter of the country’s population. As the e-commerce sites Khoa used to use collapsed, he moved his growing operation onto Facebook.
On Facebook, people from across the country could meet, discuss, and trade whatever they wanted, such as bicycles or firearms. With Facebook making only a limited effort to moderate content in Vietnam, groups and pages became a hotbed for illicit pastimes — a breeding ground for the undesirable. For Khoa, Facebook was his shop window. He presented himself as a pet-friendly business, making a friendly, crown-wearing squirrel munching on a nut his profile picture, and posting a banner image that read “Pet Shop” and featured a smiling husky wearing a leather cowboy hat. He set his prices with the help of Vietnam’s Red Data Book — known simply as the ‘red book’ — a list of the country’s rare and endangered native species. It is supposed to be a resource for conservation, but to Khoa, it was more of a guide. The rarer the animal, the higher the value.
Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a non-governmental organization working to stop the illicit wildlife trade, began tracking Khoa in 2013. ENV was Vietnam’s first local wildlife protection organization, founded more than 20 years ago, and is perhaps the country’s most prominent voice in trying to tackle the country’s trafficking problem.
Back in 2013, said Douglas Hendrie, the group’s Director of Counter-Wildlife Trafficking Operations, the group followed maybe three or four cases of online trafficking a year. Now, they have more than 1,700 cases in a total year. Khoa may have been one of the early adopters, and one of the most successful, but he was soon joined by many, many others.
“It was the beginning of a tsunami that was coming, but we were too stupid to realize,” Hendrie said. “We thought we had it under control.”
Today, the zoo at Cu Chi Water Park, just north of Ho Chi Minh City, is a shell of its former glory. At the entrance, a security guard sits under blue arches, his feet propped firmly atop his workstation. Its blue pools, empty of water, sizzle away in the midday sun. Its cages are filled not with live wild animals, but with wonky taxidermied lions and zebras.
But it wasn’t always like this. The palm tree-lined park was once a thriving hub of family fun. Its lazy river crammed with listless, floating children; its open-air cages filled with similarly listless elephants. But the water park was a so-called bear bile and ice cream operation, the kind of place that builds a zoo around a trafficking business. Two years ago, authorities confiscated a leopard from Cu Chi, and the park was forced to give up the trade.
It was here, in 2015, where ENV almost nailed Khoa.
By then, the King of Squirrels had graduated again. He was no longer buying animals at Chatuchak Market and smuggling them back on public buses. Now, twice a week, Khoa would rattle down the highways in his own privately rented vehicles, feeding his small travelling zoo on the way from Thailand to his shop, The Pet Kingdom, in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Binh district. Back then, being a brick-and-mortar pet shop owner was a sign of legitimacy, another way to attract customers not yet used to the internet. They could wander in, looking for a squirrel or a white rabbit, and he could say, “want to see something from the red book?” He was pulling in a minimum of $3,000 (70 million dong) per trip.
In addition to the store, Khoa had customers contacting him from as far afield as China, Japan, and Taiwan. Over time he built relationships with border security, and, as a frequent flyer, could sometimes pass through without having to pay a bribe. Khoa also formed friendships with two officers in the Environmental Police Department, who alerted him to danger. He had begun to feel, and act, as if he were untouchable.
ENV had been trying to catch Khoa in the act of trafficking for two years. They still needed the Environmental Police Department to make the arrest, but if a case made it to court, ENV could use prosecutors and judges to ensure traffickers saw jail time. But each time they organized a sting operation Khoa’s friends on the inside would tip him off. Whenever the police and ENV raided the Pet Kingdom, looking for leopard cats, tiger cubs and primates, all they would find were squirrels and exotic chickens.
When they left, he would take to Facebook and unleash a torrent of insults, cursing ENV and the authorities who tried to take him down. According to Hendrie, he even bragged about seeing correspondence between ENV and local government days before the raids. “He was a real smartass,” said Hendrie. “He was openly making fun of the police, making fun of me, almost daring people to get him.”
(Khoa denies taunting ENV online.)
Around ENV HQ, employees took to calling him “the Bastard of the Internet.” But in 2015, they seemed to catch a break.
Duc is an ENV investigator who specializes in gathering information about trafficking online. Rest of World agreed not to reveal his real name to avoid jeopardizing his investigations. His many phones are filled with pictures that traffickers have sent him of their wares over the messaging app Zalo. “They never say what they sell. They just send pictures,” he said, as he scrolled past large elephant tusks turned into ornaments, past frozen tigers, dead tigers, and parts of tigers that can no longer be identified as tigers. He stopped on a picture of a clean, inch-thick slice of rhino horn. It was held against the flashlight of a phone and shone like a fingernail pressed against a bright light. Duc explained that, in order to prove the rhino horn is real, the inside must be illuminated in red.
Wildlife traffickers sometimes send Duc selfies too, but never pictures of themselves with the merchandise. Khoa was never so circumspect. Shortly after Duc started working on his case in 2015, he came across a video of the trafficker happily livestreaming a tiger sale on Facebook. With one hand he gave a thumbs-up gesture, with the other, he grasped a wriggling tiger cub.
The cub, ENV found, belonged to Cu Chi Water Park. This was a chance for ENV to catch Khoa, and the Environmental Police Department to bring down the owners of the water park, which had over the years become a notorious front for wildlife trafficking.
All they needed was to catch Khoa taking a tiger out of the water park. If they didn’t have this, Hendrie said, it gave Khoa deniability. “He could say, ‘We weren’t selling it, we were just showing you a tiger.’”
They set up a sting. Undercover investigators posed as buyers. At the park, Khoa led them to a back room in a hidden corner of the zoo and showed them a small tiger cub, fragile and naive, sitting in a wooden cage. They organized the sale, bartered prices, and were about to seal the deal when Khoa and the zoo got cold feet and backed out. Khoa never revealed how he and the owners knew the operation was a sting, but the failed sale was a major blow for ENV and the local authorities, who were attempting to catch the bigger fish, the owners of the zoo themselves.
A Chinese buyer purchased the tiger a few days later.
The Vietnamese government’s interest in the wildlife trade has waxed and waned over the years, but periodic crackdowns on brick-and-mortar shops and fake zoos has pushed the trade increasingly online. The combination of unprecedented connectivity and little regulation meant that any opportunistic seller could give illegal wildlife trafficking a go. The trade grew exponentially, and mostly online. Towards the end of 2020, 1,300 out of 1,700 wildlife trafficking reports that ENV received were from online sales. One report by Traffic showed that the weekly average of posts selling ivory items climbed by 74.8% in 2019, compared to 2016. Wildlife crime in general is rising 5% to 7% annually, and in Vietnam, it’s driven by a booming economy — the country is set to become at least solidly middle-income by 2025 — and a longstanding reputation for being a major consumer market for wildlife.
That trade is not hidden on the dark web, but out in the open on social media sites and messaging platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and, in Vietnam, Zalo — mainly because that is where the buyers are. The trade has become ubiquitous on Facebook platforms, including Instagram, where sellers advertise their goods to the public and before carrying out the transaction on encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp.
“It’s like that old adage,” said Gretchen Peters, founder of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO), an anti-trafficking organization. “When the bank robber was asked why he robbed banks, he says, that’s where the money is.”
Meanwhile, local ecosystems were being devastated, and were no longer able to provide the ground rhino horn or tiger glue that were increasingly in demand. In 2010, Vietnam’s last Javan rhino was found dead in Cat Tien National Park, around a three-hour drive northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The animal was pictured laying on its back like a carelessly toppled plastic dinosaur, a bullet lodged in its left foreleg and a bloody foot-long gash in place of a horn, its body speckled black with flies.
“If this continues in the same way,” Yoganand Kandasamy, Regional Lead for Wildlife and Wildlife Crime at WWF Greater Mekong said, “most animals will be gone.”
The fact that this was all playing out online meant that campaigners started pushing the big tech platforms to act. In 2018, 61 major internet companies, including Google, Alibaba, eBay, Rakuten, Tencent, and Facebook, formed the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. They adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach to the illicit wildlife trade and vowed to bring trafficking down by 80% by 2020.
By working with wildlife experts from World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, each company would develop and implement new policies and solutions aimed at ending wildlife trafficking on their platforms. Experts could, for example, train moderators to distinguish between real and fake ivory based on an image, or give them updated lists of keywords that traffickers use to sell illegal wildlife.
Some platforms managed to hit this goal. TikTok, which became the latest social network to join the Coalition at the end of March 2021, claimed in a blog post that, since last November, they were able to remove 85.3% of illicit wildlife trade content before any received a single view.
Facebook, however, was less successful. It did little more than manually remove posts flagged by monitors from wildlife organizations. It’s unclear precisely how many wildlife trade pages Facebook moderators have removed since joining the Coalition, because the company doesn’t include these statistics in its annual transparency report. One report released by TRAFFIC showed a 70% decrease in ivory items for sale on Facebook between 2016 and 2019. Research by the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, however, found that the number of these pages actually increased since the founding of the Coalition. It also found that 29% of pages were found recommended by algorithms, mainly through the “Related Pages” feature. Essentially, if a prospective buyer couldn’t find what they were looking for on one page, Facebook would show users other places to buy illicit wildlife.
In a 2020 report, the ACCO simply stated, “Facebook failed to keep its promise.”
That however, did not prompt the platform to change its behavior. “We tried to engage Facebook and they sort of blew us off,” said Peters.
The wildlife trade is far from simple, and is full of complex rules and loopholes that vary from country to country. Some wild animals, like parrots, may be fine to sell, and even the sale of tiger parts and rhino horn could be legal, depending on the individual and purpose. It’s hard to train Facebook’s 35,000-odd moderators to understand the nuances of different wildlife laws, or the many tricks used to break them.
Still, Facebook has proven extremely efficient at combating credit card fraud, but less effective at stopping illegal activities that don’t directly impact their bottom line. Hiring moderators is expensive, and fixing problems such as wildlife trafficking would mean “[Facebook] certainly wouldn’t be as profitable as it is,” Peters said.
When asked via email to give an explanation as to what measures they’re taking to combat the illicit wildlife trade on their platforms, Facebook refused to outline the exact strategy on the record, instead highlighting their commitment to tackling the illicit wildlife trade. “There is no place for illegal wildlife trade on any Facebook app, and we prohibit content and ads attempting to trade, sell or purchase endangered animals. In addition to proactive detection, partnerships with wildlife experts and work with law enforcement, we continue to invest to improve the enforcement of our policies,” a Facebook company spokesperson said over email.
The Coalition did convince the social media giant to create new policies around wildlife trafficking, but it remains to be seen whether that will actually translate into enforcement. “There’s a big difference between what Facebook says it does, what they intend to do and what they actually do,” Peters said. “You might see that they really care about banning wildlife traffic on the platform, but it’s still very easy to find.”
In the end, the King of Squirrels missed the boom.
On December 2, 2015, Khoa posted a picture on Facebook of a baby black-shanked douc langur, a small endangered primate native to Southeast Asia with a charcoal streak across its face that makes it look like a tiny highwayman.
Duc, ENV’s man on the inside of the online trafficking industry, saw the post, and with it another opportunity to crack Khoa’s business. To catch him, they needed to work quickly.
In some countries like Brazil, it’s estimated that only one in 10 animals ever reach the final customer. The rest die during capture or in transit from the shock of being ripped from their habitat. In this trade, the baby langur was one of the unfortunate ones. But ENV didn’t need the animal to be alive. Keeping Khoa on the phone as the team prepared the authorities, the investigator told Khoa that they would buy the langur regardless, along with nine otters that he had for sale on his Facebook page. “Just put the langur in the fridge to preserve it,” they told him.
“OK,” Khoa replied. “But I’m going to Thailand tomorrow. If the deal is happening, it has to happen today.”
The late December sun was setting over Ho Chi Minh City when Khoa approached the meeting point, a café in Ho Chi Minh City. The street was as cacophonous as usual, with motorbikes streaming past and horns blaring. As he entered the premises, he spotted a car with blacked-out windows and had the uncanny feeling of being watched.
The prospective buyer was waiting. He had been introduced to Khoa by a separate ENV investigator, and sent a photograph so the trafficker would recognize him. The buyer, who ENV’s Hendrie referred to as “B”, was an undercover agent for the Environmental Police Department. He was, Hendrie said, an “inexperienced, dare I say, incompetent, frontman” for the operation.
“Where are the goods?” B asked as Khoa joined him, nervously eyeing the other customers in the café. On his phone, Khoa showed the buyer the livestream from the CCTV cameras in his shop.
Khoa had a feeling something was amiss, but he took B to his pet shop anyway. When they arrived, B headed straight for the bathroom. There, Khoa suspects, B updated the authorities, and let them know he was in.
Khoa said later he knew there was something wrong, but still he led B to the back room in his shop. “I don’t understand why. It’s like someone else was controlling me,” Khoa would later tell Rest of World.
He opened a box to show B the nine otters and the dead, black-shanked douc langur. When he looked back around, he was surrounded.
On June 21, 2016, Khoa was sentenced to five years in prison and a $2,150 (50 million dong) fine.
“This story is about to end,” Khoa said, as his cafe sua da sweated cold rings into the table in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s last remaining pet cafes. “But I want to tell everyone on the record, and to help them to understand the story better. I’m not just an ordinary wildlife trader.”
Though his face had aged perhaps more than the five years that have passed since his arrest, he still appeared young, with a squeaky voice and thick Southern Vietnamese accent. When told he looked like a rapper, with his gold rings and watch, the 27-year-old shook his head. He said he was a working man, nothing more.
Khoa served his five-year sentence. He says that he should have served just a year or two for his crimes, but claims that Dinh La Thang, the former Minister of Transport and former Communist Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City — who was himself arrested for corruption in 2017 — allegedly signed several letters to ensure Khoa served his full term.
As he spoke, his eyes filled with the tears of a man wronged, and a quiet rage simmered underneath the surface. Behind him, a pack of imported dogs barked and yipped. A French bulldog stood in a cage eating a fist-sized ball of raw beef.
Khoa says that, one day, he’d like to open up a little zoo. Not in Ho Chi Minh City, but out in the provinces, where he can buy some land. “I want to have a lot of money so I can make a small zoo with all kinds of animals,” said Khoa, with a hopeful grin.
For now, however, he claims to be back in the bonsai business, spending his days managing his small plant shop on the outer edges of Ho Chi Minh City’s sprawl. He says that he’s no longer involved with illicit trading. He still sells some wildlife online, but, he says, nothing from the red book. Now it’s dogs, rabbits, racoons, foxes, turtles. “Now I’m just a normal person in society. I don’t do anything bad. I just wanted to continue nurturing my dream, even if it takes a little longer.”
Hearing this, Duc, the ENV investigator, laughed. Khoa, he claimed, is back to his old business, only now he sells his illicit wares via closed Facebook groups. “I still see pictures from Khoa on private social media groups,” Duc said. “I recently saw a picture of him selling a pair of bear claws.”