Backstory

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.

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.

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Backstory

A Tale of Two Parties

The incredible story of how Egypt's entrenched regime will stop at nothing to stifle the birth of a liberal opposition movement.

In June 2005, at the height of the Bush administration's "Freedom Agenda," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put her foot down. In a ringing speech at the American University in Cairo, Rice called on Egypt's regime, as well as its counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Syria, to "make a strategic choice" and embrace democracy.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," Rice said.

Just five months earlier, Egypt had arrested Ayman Nour, the country's most promising liberal politician, for allegedly forging signatures on his party's application papers. Nour's real crime, it seems, was presenting a credible alternative to Gamal Mubarak, the president's dashing young son, who is widely assumed to be in line for the throne when his 82-year-old father finally retires or kicks the bucket.

Nour was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, and largely forgotten. The parliamentary elections held later that year -- far from being free and fair, as Rice had demanded -- were marred by violence and widespread fraud. Now, as Egyptians gird themselves for yet another stolen election later this month, the incredible tale of Nour's Ghad party serves as a potent reminder of the creative lengths President Hosni Mubarak's regime will go to sideline its political opponents.

You see, there are now not one, but two Ghad parties. One, the remnants of Nour's Ghad party, is not a legal entity. It is "boycotting" the elections, which it couldn't contest anyway. And there's a second Ghad party -- a legal one with close ties to the regime -- that will be running 31 candidates in districts nationwide. As a consequence, there is ample confusion among Egyptian voters and Washington analysts alike.

How did this happen? Egypt's powerful State Security bureau does not generally explain its actions to the public. So the following story was reconstructed from dozens of interviews, over the course of this past summer, with members of both parties, as well as scores of outside analysts and political observers. What emerges is a fascinating case study of authoritarianism in the democratic age.

The original Ghad party was founded in late 2003, when a group of liberal activists and disenchanted members of the Wafd, Egypt's not-so-glorious nationalist opposition party, began drafting a platform under the leadership of Nour, a lawyer who was then a Wafd representative in parliament. Their aim was to provide a serious, pro-democratic alternative to the regime, and their central ideas emphasized ending Egypt's stifling emergency laws and promoting personal freedoms and the consolidation of a civil state, as opposed to an Islamic one.

The early going was rough. After the regime-controlled Committee on Parties' Affairs denied Ghad's first three applications for a license, Ghad sued in administrative court. To save itself the embarrassment of losing a case, the regime offered Nour a deal: end the litigation in exchange for a party license. Nour agreed, and Ghad received its license on Oct. 28, 2004. The license came with an implied stipulation: Ghad would participate within the regime's political structures and avoid criticizing the government too harshly.

Yet Ghad immediately signaled its refusal to play by the regime's rules. At its first party convention in November 2004, Ghad appointed Ibrahim Eissa editor in chief of the party's newspaper. This rankled the regime: Eissa was a prominent, biting critic of the president, and the government had shuttered his newspaper, al-Dustour, in 1998 to silence him.

Next, Ghad circulated its proposed constitution, which called for expanding parliamentary powers at the expense of Mubarak's authority. When Ghad submitted its constitution to parliament, Mubarak declared its leaders "traitors."

Finally, Ghad courted the international community. On Jan. 26, 2005, Nour met with a delegation organized by the Council on Foreign Relations and headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.* For the regime, this was the last straw. Fearing that Ghad's actions would catalyze increased foreign pressure to liberalize, the regime stripped Nour's parliamentary immunity and arrested him on those dubious forgery charges on Jan. 29. Then, with Nour temporarily imprisoned, the regime tapped its allies within Ghad to foment divisions and alter the party's course.

One of these allies was Ghad assistant chair Rageb Helal Hemeda. Hemeda had developed a strong working relationship with State Security during the 1980s, when he spent six years in and out of prison for his involvement in the radical Islamist organization al-Takfir wa'al-Hijra. These domestic intelligence connections shaped Hemeda's quick rise from selling fuul sandwiches out of a cart in downtown Cairo to being elected to parliament in 1995, at age 34. As a founding Ghad leader, Hemeda strengthened his relationship with State Security by relaying information on Ghad's activities. After Nour's arrest, Hemeda became critical in the regime's bid to destroy the party: He disseminated negative information about Nour, including allegations of Nour's financial malfeasance and "proof" of his forgery, and encouraged Ghad members to bolt.

The party's vice chairman, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, was also vital to the regime's efforts. A multi millionaire businessman whose brother serves on the influential Policy Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and whose brother-in-law is an NDP parliamentarian, Moussa was abroad at the time of Nour's arrest. But when he returned to Cairo on Feb. 8, State Security officers interrogated him at the airport for three days. Upon being released, Moussa sought to seize the party from Nour. He immediately removed Eissa as editor of the Ghad newspaper and replaced him with a journalist tied to State Security, thereby signaling his willingness to cooperate with the regime.

On Feb. 26, 2005, Mubarak responded to growing international pressure for political reform by announcing Egypt's first-ever multi candidate presidential election. Nour announced his candidacy from his prison cell and, upon being released on March 12, began his campaign. Yet his party was already slipping away. Those members aligning with Moussa and Hemeda avoided Ghad activities. Meanwhile, Hemeda's own parliamentary campaign literature featured his photo underneath Mubarak's, with the slogan reading, "We're all behind you, O leader!"

Still, Nour's presidential campaign drew significant international attention. His liberal rhetoric -- and the large crowds that flocked to his events -- echoed elections held earlier that year in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and Lebanon. Even after Nour finished a distant second to Mubarak in the September election with 7 percent of the vote, many observers expected that he would lead a revitalized liberal opposition and push for further reform.

Yet this optimism ignored the new political reality taking shape in Cairo. Shortly after the election, Nour fired Moussa, Hemeda, and two other leaders from the party. In response, the two men held their own party conference under Ghad's banner, populating the gathering with Moussa's factory workers, Hemeda's street gangs, and NDP members -- many of whom thought they would be attending a rally for Mubarak. This second "Ghad" party elected Moussa chairman and signaled its loyalty to the regime by calling for Gamal Mubarak to be the next president of Egypt in the inaugural issue of its own "Ghad" newspaper. In November's parliamentary elections, this "Ghad" faction ran 65 candidates -- often against candidates from Nour's own Ghad party. Ultimately, only one of the 265 combined Ghad candidates prevailed: Hemeda, whose election was viewed as a reward from the regime.

On Dec. 24, 2005, an Egyptian court convicted Nour of the forgery and sentenced him to five years of hard labor. Many of Nour's remaining supporters fled the party, while Moussa and Hemeda began solidifying their pro-regime party under the Ghad banner.

Over the next two years, Moussa pursued a complicated legal strategy in multiple courts, ultimately attaining Ghad's party license in June 2007. When the original, pro-Nour Ghad faction -- or what remained of it -- refused to shut down its activities, Moussa's now-legalized Ghad party took matters into its own hands. On Nov. 6, 2008, Hemeda's street gangs attempted to occupy the pro-Nour faction's headquarters; the ensuing skirmish ended with Nour's headquarters in flames, as one of Hemeda's henchmen tackled a fireman who had been called to the scene. Thus, when the regime granted Nour an early release from prison as a goodwill gesture to U.S. President Barack Obama's administration in February 2009, he returned to a party that had been neutralized.

Indeed, even though most Egyptians still associate the "Ghad" name with Nour and his pro-democratic message, a vote for Ghad is, in fact, a vote for a pro-Mubarak party.

Over the past year, Moussa's official hold on the official Ghad party has strengthened. In June, he won a seat in the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house, receiving nearly 120,000 votes in an election that even his allies admit was rigged by the regime. Two months prior, Moussa's party scored a major propaganda victory when Ismail Ismail, the brother of Nour's estranged wife, aligned with Moussa. Ismail is now running for Nour's former parliamentary seat, and his victory would further weaken the link between the Ghad name and its liberal founder.

Meanwhile, Nour has fought to remain relevant. He tours the country pressing for reform, and regularly holds press conferences touting his Ghad party's plans, including its election boycott. "We did not boycott to stay at home, but we will be working on the streets," Nour recently told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In just one year and five months, I visited 330 villages, cities, centers, hamlets, and sports centers. This unprecedented record of visits is part of a street campaign."

Yet Nour's persistence -- though commendable -- is ultimately a political sideshow. After all, he is calling for changes that he has no power to implement and boycotting elections from which his party is already banned.

 

It is tempting to believe that, if Washington placed enough pressure on Cairo to liberalize, this reality could change. But Ghad's story demonstrates that the Mubarak regime's commitment to stifling its domestic opponents far outweighs the West's commitment to promoting democratization. After all, undercutting the remarkably devious tactics through which the regime stifles even its most prominent opponents would require Washington to maintain an uncommonly high level of involvement in Egypt's internal affairs. And, as Obama suggested in his June 2009 Cairo address, the promotion of political reform is secondary to other priorities, including undercutting violent Islamist radicalism and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In effect, five years after the "Freedom Agenda," the United States and its allies have returned to doing exactly what Rice decried: pursuing regional stability at the expense of democracy.

Editor's Note: The original version of this article stated that Ayman Nour met with a U.S. congressional task force headed by Madeleine Albright. In fact, it was a delegation sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The article has been updated to reflect this fact.

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