Asia’s Wildlife Trade

The Kingpin

An exposé of the world’s most notorious wildlife dealer, his special government friend, and his ambitious new plan

By Bryan Christy
Photograph by Mark Leong

Update: After this article was published, the Malaysian Parliament passed the Wildlife Conservation Act, the first major wildlife law overhaul in the country since 1972.

On September 14, 1998, a thin, bespectacled Malaysian named Wong Keng Liang walked off Japan Airlines Flight 12 at Mexico City International Airport. He was dressed in faded blue jeans, a light-blue jacket, and a T-shirt emblazoned with a white iguana head. George Morrison, lead agent for Special Operations, the elite, five-person undercover unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was there to greet him. Within seconds of his arrest, Anson (the name by which Wong is known to wildlife traffickers and wildlife law enforcement officers around the world) was whisked downstairs in handcuffs by Mexican federales, to be held in the country’s largest prison, the infamous Reclusorio Norte.

To Morrison and his team, Anson Wong was the catch of a lifetime—the world’s most wanted smuggler of endangered species. His arrest, involving authorities in Australia,Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States, was a hard-won victory, the culmination of a half-decade-long undercover operation still widely considered the most successful international wildlife investigation ever.

For too long in too many countries (including the U.S.), placing the word “wildlife” in front of the word “crime” had diminished its seriousness. U.S. federal prosecutors wanted Anson’s conviction to show the world that wildlife smugglers are criminals. In addition to charging him under the American wildlife-trafficking law known as the Lacey Act, they indicted him for conspiracy, felony smuggling, and money laundering.

For nearly two years Anson fought extradition to the U.S., but eventually he signed plea agreements, admitting to crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 250 years in prison and a $12.5-million fine. On June 7, 2001, U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins sentenced him to 71 months in U.S. federal prison (with credit for 34 months served), fined him $60,000, and banned him from selling animals to anyone in the U.S. for three years after his prison release.

If the judge thought a ban on Anson Wong would work, he was mistaken. Shortly after his arrest, Anson’s wife and business partner, Cheah Bing Shee, established a new company, CBS Wildlife, which exported wildlife to the U.S. while Anson was in prison. His main company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, continued to ship despite the ban. Now that he’s free, Anson has launched a new wildlife venture, a zoo that promises to be his most audacious enterprise yet.

Numbers Game

It is almost impossible to name an animal or plant species anywhere on the planet that has not been traded—legally or illegally—for its meat, fur, skin, song, or ornamental value, as a pet, or as an ingre dient in perfume or medicine. Every year China, the U.S., Europe, and Japan purchase billions of dollars’ worth of wildlife from biologically rich parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, emptying out parks and plundering wildlands, often newly accessible along logging roads.

The path to market typically begins when poor hunters or farmers catch animals for local traders, who pass them up the supply chain, though some traffickers—Anson Wong among them—have even dispatched their own poachers, posing as tourists. In Asia, wildlife ends up on the banquet table or in medicine shops; in Western countries, in the living rooms of exotic-animal fanciers. The economics are as easy to understand as an art auction: the rarer the item, the higher the price. Around the globe, nature is dying, and the prices of her rarest works are going up.

While no one knows exactly how large the illegal wildlife trade is, this much is certain: It’s extraordinarily lucrative. Profit margins are the kind drug kingpins would kill for. Smugglers evade detection by hiding illegal wildlife in legal shipments, they bribe wildlife and customs officials, and they alter trade documents. Few are ever caught, and penalties are usually no more severe than a parking ticket. Wildlife trafficking may very well be the world’s most profitable form of illegal trade, bar none.

Smugglers also exploit a loophole in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). With 175 countries as members, CITES is the world’s primary treaty to protect wildlife, categorized into three groups according to how endan gered a species is perceived to be. Appendix I animals, such as tigers and orangutans, are considered so close to extinction that their commercial trade is banned. Species in Appendix II are less vulnerable and may be traded under a permit system. Those in Appendix III are protected by the national legislation of the country that added them to the list. The CITES treaty has one gaping exception: Specimens bred in captivity do not receive the same protection as their wild counterparts. CITES, after all, applies to wild life.

Proponents of captive breeding argue that it takes pressure off wild populations, decreases crime, satisfies international demand that will never go away, and puts money in the pockets of those willing to commit to “farming” wildlife. But these benefits only hold in countries with enforcement policies strong enough to deter rule breakers. In practice, smugglers establish fake breeding facilities, then claim that animals and plants poached from the wild are captive bred. Fake captive breeding is just one of the techniques Anson Wong used in running a secret front operation for one of the world’s largest wildlife-smuggling syndicates.

Now the world’s most notorious convicted reptile trafficker is about to move in a new direction, with potentially shattering consequences for one of the most revered, charismatic—and endangered—animals on the planet: the tiger.

Operation Chameleon

Special Operations began its hunt for Anson Wong in the fall of 1993. Ops prided itself on tackling large-scale commercial traffickers. The group’s work on exotic-bird trafficking had resulted in the breakup of smuggling operations around the world—involving dozens of convictions in U.S. courts—and had contributed to passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, which banned the import of many vulnerable bird species. Overnight, imports of macaws, African gray parrots, and other psittacines had dropped from hundreds of thousands a year to hundreds.

By the 1990s illegal reptiles were pouring into the U.S. Prices were skyrocketing—$20,000 or more for a rare tortoise or a Komodo dragon. Reptiles smuggle well: They’re small (at least as babies), durable, and with cold-blooded metabolisms, can go for long periods without food or water. Valuable and portable, reptiles were the diamonds of wildlife trafficking.

Informants had been raising Anson Wong’s name for years, and Ops suspected he was the global kingpin of the illegal reptile trade. Anson was already wanted in the U.S. for smuggling rare reptiles to a Florida dealer in the late 1980s. He was said to be acutely aware of his status as an outlaw. There would be no “stinging” Anson Wong, no tricking him with a onetime transaction in a hotel room or catching him personally bringing reptiles through an airport. To get him, Ops would have to come up with something clever.

Special Agent Morrison—six foot five, a lifelong hunter, the son of a lawyer—was given the lead. He and his boss, Special Agent Rick Leach, leased a unit in a business complex outside San Francisco, not far from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons facility. They filled their new wholesale enterprise, called Pac Rim, with the only saleable merchandise they had, a truckload of seashells and corals left over from previous investigations: fluted clamshells, spiraling Trochidae shells, hard corals, the sort of white and pink junk sold by aquarium supply stores and beachside tourist shops. They advertised their confidence items in magazines, and when legitimate orders came in, the seasoned crime fighters boxed and labeled seashell orders themselves.

As a complement to Pac Rim, Ops opened a retail business called Silver State Exotics outside Reno, Nevada. The combination gave the agents a circle of economic life—they could import animals in wholesale quantities through Pac Rim and retail what they didn’t need for evidence through Silver State Exotics, giving Pac Rim the appearance of a thriving global operation (and an income).

On October 19, 1995, Morrison sent a fax to Anson’s company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, explaining that he was a wholesaler of shells and corals interested in expanding into reptiles and amphib ians. Anson replied with a one-page price list offering low-end frogs and toads for under five dollars and house geckos for 30 cents (items known in the pet industry as trash animals), listed by their Latin names. In one case Anson used his own name for a subspecies: ansoni. Two animals on the list stood out—the Fly River turtle (also known as the pig-nosed turtle) and the frilled lizard, protected throughout their ranges in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Australia. So in his first contact with Morrison, a complete stranger, Anson had offered a taste of illegal wildlife.

Soon Anson was soliciting Morrison with the planet’s scarcest, most valuable Appendix I reptiles: Komodo dragons from Indonesia, tuatara from New Zealand, Chinese alligators, and Madagascan plowshare tortoises, rarest of the rare. Using a corrupt employee in the Fed Ex facility in Phoenix, Arizona, Anson express mailed protected species—including a Southeast Asian false gharial and Madagascan radiated tortoises, both Appendix I—to fake “drop” addresses. He flew Komodos directly to Morrison from Malaysia, hidden in suitcases wheeled by his American mule, James Burroughs. He sent Madagascan radiated tortoises, their legs taped inside their shells, bundled in black socks and packed at the bottom of legal reptile shipments.

Morrison marveled at Anson’s dexterity. He could broker turtles out of Peru without ever touching them. He contracted out poaching hits on a wildlife sanctuary in New Zealand. He owned a wildlife business in Vietnam. And he boasted an ability to enforce his deals using Chinese muscle.

Significantly, he exploited the CITES captive-breeding exception, claiming that wild animals he exported were captive bred. Under one ruse, Anson shipped large numbers of Indian star tortoises through Dubai, claiming they’d been bred in captivity there. When investigators checked on the facility, they found a flower shop.

Anson assured Morrison that they had nothing to fear from Malaysian authorities. Wildlife smuggling in Malaysia is policed both by customs and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, or Perhilitan. Referring to his American courier, Anson told Morrison, “I have the second man of the customs bring him out of the airport and drive him to my office.”

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About dmacc502

Happy individual with positive outlook. Enjoy people and sharing ideas and mindful thoughts. Avid news watcher, cat lover, birdwatcher and cook.Fortunate not to have to work and love my quiet time. Married with two daughters in college.
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