By Bryan Christy
Last week, Anson Wong, the world’s most notorious international wildlife dealer, walked out of a Malaysian prison a free man after a Malaysian Appeals Court reduced his sentence for trafficking wildlife from five years to time served—17 months. Wong, who featured prominently in the National Geographic story “The Kingpin” (January 2010), was also the target of a major U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigation in the 1990s. He has made a career of offering for sale many of the world’s most iconic and endangered species and their parts—snow leopards, pandas, rhinoceroses, tigers, rare birds, and endangered reptiles.
But the mistake that got him arrested by Malaysian authorities in 2010 was relatively minor: He was passing through Kuala Lumpur International Airport on his way to Jakarta, Indonesia, when a lock on his suitcase broke, revealing 95 boa constrictors, a couple of African vipers, and a South American turtle.
Wong’s 2010 arrest came on the heels of an amazing list of reforms undertaken in Malaysia. After publication of “The Kingpin,” the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) announced a restructuring of Malaysia’s wildlife department, Perhilitan. It declared that “special permits” to possess endangered species would likewise be better scrutinized. Malaysia’s parliament passed the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2010, a major reform. A few weeks later, Wong was caught by airline personnel with his illicit suitcase. MNRE announced it was taking away his business licenses and seizing his animals. Wong was sentenced to five years.
Now, he is out.
Steve Galster, director of FREELAND Foundation and a primary architect of the ASEAN region’s wildlife enforcement network, ASEAN-WEN, said this about Wong’s release: “Asia’s illegal wildlife trade is run by wealthy people with powerful connections. Anson Wong’s conviction and imprisonment gave us hope that the winds were changing. Last week’s very early release of this notorious crook reminds us that the traffickers still run the show in Asia.”
Dr. William Schaedla, Regional Director, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, believes a major opportunity was lost in not investigating Wong’s cell phones and laptop, which were seized upon his arrest. “At the very least these should have provided insight into his business dealings. Yet despite repeated assurances that further investigations were part of the prosecution’s strategy, nearly a year and a half passed with no new charges or evidence logged.” More use should have been made of INTERPOL, which has a dedicated Wildlife Crime Officer based in Bangkok, Schaedla says. “Mr. Wong and his ilk are not just trading common house pets or livestock. They are dealing largely in species at imminent risk of extinction.”
That global wildlife law enforcement could be better coordinated is underscored by the fact that Malaysia’s Court considered Wong a “first offender,” even though he had previously been imprisoned in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Efforts are currently underway in Malaysia to establish a “green court” dedicated to hearing environmental cases. In the U.S., the creation of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division at the Justice Department was one of the most significant advances in the evolution of environmental law enforcement.
February has been a rough month for law enforcement. Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Rand Paul introduced S.2062—Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures Act of 2012, a bill that would gut the Lacey Act, arguably the most important wildlife law in the world. The Lacey Act is the law that put Anson Wong in jail the first time.
“I can get you anything here from anywhere,” Wong once told a U.S. undercover agent. “Nothing can be done to me. I could sell a panda—and, nothing. As long as I’m in Malaysia,” Wong said, “I’m safe.”
We will see if times have changed in Malaysia.
Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist and author who has spent years focused on environmental crimes. A Fulbright Scholar, he attended Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University Graduate School, University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Tokyo Law School. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., including in the Executive Office of the President. Mr. Christy is the author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers. In researching that book, he was bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger. His article, The Kingpin, exposing wildlife trader Anson Wong, appeared in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. Visit his website for updates about his work.
Photo by Michael Bryant/2004 Playboy