There's perhaps no greater driver in the illegal trade in endangered animals than China's wealthy elites, whose consumption of elephant and rhino horn projects a privileged social status and is believed to be a treatment for all sorts of health ailments.
But their lust for these goods doesn't stop with a visit to a local herbalist or broker-dealer.
On the banks of the Mekong River in Laos, some 18 miles from the nearest town, is a secluded "lawless playground" where tourists can purchase practically any endangered animal product they fancy — duty-free.
Patrons of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ) dine over bear paws and tiger bone wine, adorn themselves with ivory bracelets for good luck, snort rhino horn powder, and take leopard skins home to their wives, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which has issued a report on GT SEZ. Perhaps most shocking is the on-site tiger farm, where the big cats are bred for consumption — a practice the Laotian government claims to be detrimental to the health of wild tiger populations, yet seems content on ignoring.
EIA says GT SEZ aims to expand its tiger farm to as many as 1,000 cats.
Cross-border trade in these wildlife products is prohibited under international endangered species agreements. But weak national wildlife laws, insufficient law enforcement, and widespread corruption among Laotian officials allow GT SEZ to operate without fear of enforcement, making Laos "the weak link in the regional wildlife crime chain," according to EIA.
"We really weren't expecting to see such open illegal trade; we were shocked at just how open it was," Debbie Banks, senior campaigner for EIA, told VICE News. "It wasn't a sort of shabby street market, this was a very up-market, high-end destination. There was no attempt to conceal a blatant, illegal wildlife trade."
Richard Thomas, Global Communications Coordinator for TRAFFIC, said illegal trade in Laos has long been of concern to his organization.
"[The EIA report] is further information on the levels of involvement, sure, but it's not a surprise to us that these sorts of findings are being made," he said.
A 2012 UN Office on Drugs and Crime report exposed Laos' extreme vulnerability to various sorts of organized crime, including wildlife trafficking. And, last week, the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species urged member nations to sever trade ties with Laos — along with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria — because it failed to impose sufficient endangered species protections
"[This sanction] can have significant economic impact," Thomas told VICE News.
These international actions suggest GT SEZ is only the most egregious example of abundant wildlife trade in Laos. GT SEZ is an especially popular destination because of its proximity to the Chinese and Thai borders, as gambling is outlawed in both China and Thailand. The resort is located in the province of Bokeo — meaning "gem mine" in the Lao language. For years, the region has thrived on sapphire and gold mines. Human trafficking is also known to fuel the local economy. And The Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand is one of the world's highest producing opium regions.
"There is an abundance of external sources that suggest that there is an overlap between the individuals involved [in the wildlife trade] and narcotics trafficking and money laundering, but we didn't stumble upon it ourselves," Banks said.
The Chinese company Kings Romans Group owns an 80 percent of stake in GT SEZ, but details about the resort's investors remains difficult to come by.
"I think there's some pretty good references and sources out there about the relationship between Zhao Wei, the head of the Kings Romans group, and Sai Leun," Banks told VICE News.
Sai Leun, also known as Lin Mingxian, is a known Chinese drug trader in the region. Kings Romans Group has denied allegations that he holds a stake in the resort.
Xaysavang Import-Export Company, an infamous Laos-based wildlife trade syndicate with operations in southern Africa and Southeast Asia, may also be involved in GT SEZ, according to EIA.
"We know that the captive tigers, those tigers came from central Laos, most likely from the Mong La tiger farm," said Banks. "We know there is some sort of business dealings with other tiger traders in Laos, but whether that's specifically with the Xaysavang network, it's not possible for us to say."
The Laotian government has a 20 percent stake in GT SEZ, but EIA has been unable to discern whether the government has received revenue from the resort. The government remains complicit, said Banks, because "they cannot pretend to be unaware of what is going on."
China, too, has a responsibility to investigate the illegal wildlife trade in Laos, Banks told VICE News.
"We have provided information in Mandarin to the law enforcement agencies within China," she said, "so that they can pursue those individuals, including the Kings Romans Group."
Follow Kate Jenkins on Twitter: @kateshannonjenk