The Serpent King

How a notorious Malaysian wildlife smuggler was brought to justice -- and what it tells us about stopping the world's most profitable black market.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It began almost innocently. A broken lock on a suitcase moving through Kuala Lumpur International Airport this summer led to an odd discovery: nearly 100 baby boa constrictors, two vipers, and a South American turtle, all hidden inside. It was a fairly modest cache for a wildlife smuggler, but the man who claimed the suitcase was no ordinary criminal. He was Anson Wong Keng Liang, the world’s most notorious wildlife trafficker. And instead of a slap on the wrist, which he might reasonably have expected, Wong was about to receive a surprising punishment.

From the tiny Malaysian island of Penang, in a storefront no larger than your average nail salon, Wong commanded one of the world’s largest wildlife trafficking syndicates. Much of the work Wong’s company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, had done since he got into the business three decades ago was above-board: He legally wholesaled tens of thousands of wild reptiles annually, making him the likely source for many of the snakes, lizards, turtles, and frogs on sale in American pet stores. But using a private zoo as a cover, he also offered an astounding array of contraband, including snow leopard pelts, panda bear skins, rhino horns, rare birds, and Komodo dragons. He moved everything from chinchillas to elephants, smuggling critically endangered wildlife from Australia, China, Madagascar, New Zealand, South America, and elsewhere to markets largely in Europe, Japan, and the United States. For a man capable of brokering these kinds of deals, Wong’s arrest over a suitcase of boa constrictors was the equivalent of a Mexican narcotraficante getting caught with a few marijuana cigarettes in his pocket.

Wong’s long career beyond the reach of the law offers a window on the illegal wildlife trade and our broken system to combat it. Underfunded law enforcement, government corruption, controversy-shy NGOs, and a feeble international legal framework have yielded few inroads against wildlife syndicates or kingpins like Anson Wong. Wong’s arrest and his sentencing in November 2010 provide a lesson on how to change that.

The illegal wildlife trade is often described in the press as a $10 or even $20 billion-a-year industry, just behind illegal drugs and weapons trafficking in scale. But in truth, no one really knows how big the illegal wildlife trade is; the few serious efforts to quantify it have failed. Certainly the range of life forms on offer — timber, fish, exotic pets, coral, ivory, skins, supplies for traditional Asian medicines, and on — represents billions of dollars a year, legal and illegal. China alone consumes vast amounts of endangered species — freshwater turtles, spiny anteaters, even tigers — as delicacies or for medicinal purposes, while other countries in Asia and the rest of the world collect them as pets, or make watchbands, scarves, perfume, furniture, and wall ornaments out of them. What makes the illegal trade so lucrative is its minimal risk: Few traffickers are ever caught, fewer still are prosecuted, and those who are convicted generally end up paying fines the size of parking tickets. Almost no one goes to jail. As a result, the illegal wildlife trade may be the world’s most profitable form of transnational crime.

Wong got into the business in the early 1980s, selling exotic animals to zoos and dealers around the world. In the beginning, he told me when I met him at his office on Penang in March 2007, he dealt openly in the ungettable: gorillas, tigers — “anything,” he said, by which he meant “anything rare.” (Changes in international and Malaysian law eventually led him to focus on reptiles, which he believed were not as protected as other species.) Wong’s techniques mirrored those of narcotics and other traffickers. He paid mules to carry Komodo dragons hidden inside suitcases, and hid endangered Malagasy tortoises at the bottom of legal wildlife shipments. Purchasing vacation packages as cover, he sent men out to poach rare wildlife from breeding facilities in New Zealand. The most important technique Wong and other large-scale smugglers employ, however, is far less exotic than all that. Instead, it has to do with paperwork.

The primary treaty governing international wildlife trade is the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which classifies wildlife into three groups according to how close to extinction the species is perceived to be. Animals listed in Appendix I, such as tigers and gorillas, are so close to disappearing they are banned from international commercial trade; Appendix II animals may be traded under a permit system; and Appendix III animals are protected by a country with a request that others honor the protection. CITES makes paperwork the key to moving wildlife. Smugglers like Wong scan the globe for countries with weak laws or corrupt law enforcement officials tasked with stamping their animals’ documentation, paper that is as much in demand as the animals themselves. Such countries become wildlife laundering pass-through points: animals come in illegally and leave “legally.”

Few places launder as much illegal wildlife as Penang. The island’s location and favorable regulatory regime have made it not just a global manufacturing hub for multinational companies such as Dell and Intel, but also a bathtub drain for the world’s rare animals. This was largely the work of Wong: “I can get anything here from anywhere,” he boasted to an American undercover agent in March 1997. “Nothing can be done to me. I could sell a panda — and, nothing. As long as I’m here, I’m safe.” The key, he explained, was paying off government officials in the customs bureau and, importantly, in the wildlife department, the agency responsible for CITES paperwork.

Wong’s activities finally landed him on the radar of international law enforcement agencies in the early 1990s, when Special Operations, the elite undercover unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), made him the target of an investigation called Operation Chameleon. Agents set up a reptile importing company outside of San Francisco and a retail operation in Reno, Nevada, and began doing business with Wong. Before long, they discovered Wong not only smuggled rare and endangered reptiles, but also critically endangered birds and mammals. His reach was global.

To arrest Wong, agents needed a ruse to lure him out of Malaysia. There is a lucrative international black market in bear bile, which is used as a cure-all in traditional Asian medicine. USFWS Special Agent George Morrison, acting undercover, offered Wong a piece of a bear-bile smuggling operation he claimed to be running, on one condition: The two men had to meet in person. Wong agreed, but because he was already wanted in the United States on smuggling charges, he refused to meet there or in Canada. They agreed to go to Mexico instead.

When Wong stepped off a Japan Airlines flight in Mexico City on September 18, 1998, he was met by Morrison, along with Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Anderson and a team of Mexican federales, who arrested him. It was the culminating moment of Operation Chameleon, which had grown into one of the longest and most successful undercover operations ever undertaken by the USFWS, and one involving authorities in four countries. (Malaysia wasn’t one of them; the Americans suspected Wong had had help from someone in his government, and accordingly kept the Malaysian officials in the dark about their work.) Wong fought his extradition from Mexico to the United States for two years, but eventually he gave in.

In June 2001, Wong was sentenced in California to 71 months in prison, fined $60,000, and banned from exporting to the United States for three years after his release. But the sentence did not stop him. While he was in prison his wife ran his wildlife business, including sales to the United States. When he got out in 2003, Wong returned to Malaysia, grew a pony tail, and went back to work.

Wong’s U.S. conviction had no discernible impact on his ability to operate in Malaysia. To the contrary, his new plan to build a tiger zoo — a potential front for illicitly trading in big cats — received funding and land from the Penang government. “He is my good friend,” Misliah Mohamad Basir, the wildlife department official directly responsible for policing Wong, told me when I visited her at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur in January 2008. Misliah considered Wong a legitimate businessman, and believed the U.S. authorities had framed him. As proof, she offered inside knowledge of his smuggling: “He never handles animals himself,” she told me.

By the time I caught up with her, Misliah had been promoted from Penang’s top wildlife officer — her job at the time of Anson’s arrest — to deputy director general of PERHILITAN, making her the second-most powerful wildlife official in Malaysia. In fact, in the years since the USFWS’s revolutionary sting operation took down Wong, the global wildlife kingpin had only grown more powerful, while the people who brought him to justice had fallen on hard times. Special Operations failed to make another major case after Wong’s; today its best agents have given up undercover work — and the unit, which never constituted more than a handful of agents, is all but defunct. In the media, Wong’s 1998 arrest was met with a global thud. International wildlife NGOs operating in Malaysia did nothing to expose the trafficker and his relationship to the wildlife department for fear the department would expel them.

Things didn’t begin to change until January 2010, when National Geographic published a profile I wrote of Wong, detailing his government connection and his new plans to exploit tigers. The outcry by both the public and journalists in the Malaysian press was immediate. (Malaysian newspapers and television are state controlled, which makes it difficult for journalists to criticize the government directly — but they are free to disclose foreign reporting about Malaysia, such as my story.) In the course of the past year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced a revamp of its wildlife department, promising to rotate senior officers every three years. It stripped the department of key powers and is in the process of transferring Misliah, who is now also under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. While international wildlife NGOs were cautious about causing trouble in Malaysia, they have provided invaluable advice to the country’s government, including the parliament, which passed the first overhaul of its wildlife law in nearly four decades this summer.

As a result, when Wong was caught with a suitcase of boa constrictors, he didn’t get away with it. The Malaysian government revoked his business licenses, shut down his zoo, and seized his entire collection of animals, including his Bengal tigers. In November, a judge sentenced him to five years in prison, an unprecedented term for a wildlife trafficker in Malaysia, and a stern sentence for animal smuggling compared to current standards anywhere else in the world.

The effort to catch Wong — all 17 years of it — offers a few important lessons on what it takes to stop a kingpin. Two principles float to the surface. First, where there is long-term, high-volume international wildlife trafficking, there is certain to be one or more government officers who are either complicit in the smuggling or so complacent as to be reasonably considered an accomplice. This was the problem with Operation Chameleon, for all its genius — any law-enforcement effort that does not take into account the domestic governance problem will fail to yield enduring results. As long as a few countries are willing to bend the rules and fudge some paperwork, it doesn’t really matter what everyone else does: A single country, even a single wildlife enforcement official, can undermine the entire global “system” to control trafficking.

Second, the public in the kingpin’s home country is the best weapon against him. No step to Malaysia’s unprecedented legal and administrative reforms this year was more important than outcry in Malaysia from concerned citizens. Dozens of articles — many of them on Malaysian newspapers’ front pages — finally told the story of Operation Chameleon, Wong’s Penang operations, and the history of poor management by the country’s wildlife department, exposing years of bad policy and official venality.

Exposure is a critical ingredient for change. Law enforcement, NGOs, and others will find their work magnified and lasting once the public becomes aware of it. Full stories need to be told in the media. In the United States, where wildlife trafficking busts are often treated as humorous news items, that means journalists have to realize there are often criminal syndicates behind those people stopped at airports with exotic animals hidden under their clothes. As Wong himself demonstrated this summer, a man caught with snakes on a plane may be the break authorities need to stop a global trafficker of tigers, rhinos, and more.

And of course, no fix is forever. Wildlife smugglers, like any other breed of trafficker, obey the laws of supply and demand: As long as there is a market for rare and endangered animals, someone will find out how to get them there. Rising incomes in China, India, and even in Southeast Asia mean more customers for endangered wildlife. In 2009, over 18,000 live animals and more than 267 tons of dead animals and derivative products were seized in law enforcement actions in Southeast Asia alone — and that appetite won’t go away just because Wong temporarily did. It remains to be seen whether Malaysia’s reforms this year will take root, and what will happen upon Wong’s release. Still, it’s all but guaranteed that somewhere in Malaysia or another country willing to look the other way, there are aspiring kingpins working to take over his business.

Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist, a contributing writer for National Geographic, and the author of The Lizard King.

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