Eight people in the US have been charged with smuggling endangered monkeys, including a Cambodian wildlife official arrested while travelling to a conference on protecting endangered species.

The group – consisting of the Cambodian official, a colleague in that country’s wildlife agency and six people connected to a Hong Kong-based company – were involved in breeding long-tailed macaques for scientific and academic research, supplying them to labs in Florida and Texas.

The group is accused of illegally purchasing the wild macaques when they lacked supply from their breeding operations.

Long-tailed macaques, sometimes known as crab-eating macaques, are protected under international trade law and special permits are required to import the animals into the US.

“The macaque is already recognised as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” US attorney for the southern district of Florida Juan Antonio Gonzalez said in a 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.”

Masphal Kry, the deputy director of wildlife and biodiversity in Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, was arrested on Wednesday at John F Kennedy airport in New York.

Kry, 46, was travelling to Panama to attend an international meeting on regulating trade in endangered species, said a US official on condition of anonymity.

Omaliss Keo, 58, the director general of Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, is also charged in the eight-count indictment, along with the six employees of a company called Vanny Resources Holdings. According to the indictment, Vanny Resources Holdings founder and owner James Man Sang Lau, 64, and Vanny Resources Holdings general manager Dickson Lau, 29, operating from Hong Kong, owned and managed several corporations that conspired with blackmarket collectors and officials in Cambodia to acquire wild macaques and export them to the US, falsely labelled as captive bred.

Officials didn’t say whether anyone besides Kry had been taken into custody. They each face up to 145 years in prison.

The macaques were taken from national parks, and other protected areas in Cambodia, to breeding facilities where they were provided false export permits, officials alleged. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries officials were accused of receiving cash payments of $220 each in exchange for a collection quota of 3,000 “unofficial” monkeys.

“Wild populations of long-tailed macaques, as well as the health and wellbeing of the American public, are put at risk when these animals are removed from their natural habitat and illegally sold in the United States and elsewhere,” said Edward Grace, the assistant director of US Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement.

The conference in Panama, bringing together delegates from 184 parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), includes an event on 23 November on threats to the very species the Cambodian officials are accused of trafficking.

The long-tailed macaque is the most heavily traded primate on the Cites database, almost exclusively for laboratory research. According to the Database, more than 600,000 were exported and declared born or bred in captivity from 2011 to 2020. Almost 165,000 live specimens were exported in 2020 alone.

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