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.
Scenes from the illegal
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."