Officials at the highest level of an Asian government have been helping wildlife criminals smuggle millions of dollars worth of endangered species through their territory, the Guardian can reveal.

In an apparent breach of current national and international law, for more than a decade the office of the prime minister of Laos has cut deals with three leading traffickers to move hundreds of tonnes of wildlife through selected border crossings.

In 2014 alone, these deals covered $45 million (Dh165 million) worth of animal body parts and included agreed quotas requiring the disabling or killing of 165 tigers, more than 650 rhinos and more than 16,000 elephants.

Trading in all three of those species is prohibited by Lao law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which came into force in Laos in 2004. The Lao government has publicly paraded its commitment to the convention.

The evidence indicates that the agreements have yielded a profit of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Lao government treasury. The extent of the knowledge of the prime ministers is not known.

The Guardian contacted the Lao government three times last week detailing the findings and attempted to obtain comment for the story. A member of the foreign ministry’s media team confirmed the request, sent in English and Lao, had been received. However, no response to the allegations was provided.

Separately, Lao agriculture inspectors have submitted official reports about farms run by two of the traffickers, clearly stating that their own government has given approval for the farms to illegally kill captive tigers to be sold for their bones, skin and claws.

The Lao government failed to act on these reports until last week, when it announced it was planning to shut down all commercial tiger farms in its territory. Its announcement did not acknowledge its own role in approving them.

The involvement of a national leader’s office is one particularly big link in a global chain of exploitation that binds the supply lines of illegal wildlife trafficking.

Steve Galster, executive director of the anti-trafficking campaign group Freeland, said: “This is a public-private partnership with law enforcement agencies acting as partners to crime syndicates.”

Run by illegal trade

Laos is a key country in the global wildlife trade. Its wild areas and farms are home to animals that are supposed to be protected from commerce. And it is a crucial transit country for animal goods travelling illegally along well trodden smuggling routes from Africa and other parts of Asia.

The Guardian has already exposed the role of the Bach crime family in running a gateway for the smuggling of animal products from Thailand through Laos into the lucrative markets of Vietnam and China. Three Lao companies who were also named by the Guardian have been deeply involved in the traffic, both legal and illegal.

The earliest deal that the paper has seen involved the Xaysavang Trading Company, which was established in October 2002 by a Lao businessman, Vixay Keosavang. He is “so well protected that nobody can arrest him in Laos”, according to a source who has worked closely with Keosavang.

A report by Thai intelligence, seen by the Guardian, shows Keosavang signed formal agreements with the finance department of the Lao government that allowed his company during 2003, its first year of business, to traffic more than $11 million worth of animals through the country into Vietnam and China.

These agreements granted Keosavang permission to trade twelve different species including crocodiles, monkeys and pangolin anteaters; the skins of 100,000 pythons; 250 tonnes of soft-shelled turtles (which would mean killing about 45,000 of them); 100 tonnes of dogs, which are commonly cooked in Vietnamese restaurants; 1,000 magpies; and 20 tonnes of animal bones, which are used in supposedly medicinal wine.

The agreements called for Keosavang to pay a tax of 2 per cent of the value of the transactions — 4 per cent in the case of the python skins — yielding $246,550 for the Lao treasury. These 2003 agreements appear not to have broken Lao or international law, which came into effect soon afterwards. However, they set a precedent for future animal trades. Keosavang’s business survived and thrived for 12 years in spite of a torrent of evidence that should have led to his arrest. Finally, in January 2014, the Lao government revoked his licence to trade wildlife. By that time, however, the Lao prime minister’s office had silently snubbed the international community by signing off on more agreements to help two other companies replace him.

Elephant in the room

One company, Vinasakhone Trading, was authorised for the calendar year 2014 to traffic $16.9 million of animal products through Laos. This included 20 tonnes of ivory, valued at $5 million. The Environmental Investigation Agency in London estimates that one elephant yields an average of 6.7kg of ivory, meaning that the Lao government that year was allowing Vinasakhone to trade on the criminal death of 2,985 dead elephants.

The other company, Vannaseng Trading, was authorised to traffic even more. In ivory alone, according to our evidence, the government agreed that during 2014 they could traffic 90 tonnes of ivory with an estimated value of $22.5 million. That equates to 13,432 elephants.

Also agreed was potentially illegal trade in other animals. The total package agreed with Vannaseng for 2014 was worth $28.2 million — all to be officially taxed at 2 per cent for the government’s treasury. Until last week, the Lao government had failed to take action against these firms even though some of this crime has been recorded in internal government reports.

—Guardian News and Media Ltd