He’s been called the Kingpin, the Lizard King, the Pablo Escobar of wildlife smuggling. Now the man who ran an illicit multi-million dollar business could be heading to jail — again.
Big news. Anson Wong, the Malaysian mastermind of a global smuggling racket that has been stripping Asia’s forests of their endangered wildlife has been caught red-handed.
Wong has been a key player in the illegal wildlife trade, which Interpol values at US$10-20 billion per year globally. In the past he has boasted of his ability to smuggle all manner of rare species — even pandas, according to this National Geographic article by Bryan Christy.
Christy knows Wong’s story well, having investigated his exploits for his book The Lizard King. It revealed how smugglers use legitimate businesses and private zoos to exploit a loophole in the CITES, the international law that is meant to stop their lucrative trade.
When undercover agents working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service made contact with Wong in the 1990s he was soon offering them a who’s-who of the world’s most threatened species. From his base in Malaysia, where Wong had close contacts with the authorities, he boasted:
“I can get anything here from anywhere. It only depends on how much certain people get paid. Tell me what you want, I will weigh the risks, and tell you how much it’ll set you back. Nothing can be done to me. I could sell a panda—and, nothing. As long as I’m here, I’m safe.”
Wong was eventually arrested in Mexico in 1998 and extradited to the United States where he got a 71-month jail sentence. After his release in 2003, he claimed to be going straight. In an interview with Hilary Chiew of the Star newspaper, he said: “I’m just like any other guy. I just got a bit greedy.”
It seems that Wong’s greed has resurfaced. This week The Star broke the story of how he was caught at Kuala Lumpur International Airport en route to Indonesia with a suitcase full of snakes — including 95 boa constrictors.
The wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC urges Malaysian officials to enforce its International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, under which Wong could face a fine of up to a million Malaysian ringgits (US$320,000), or up to seven years in jail.
Mongabay.com reports however that Wong’s contacts at Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks had tried to free him before news of his arrest reached the Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, Datuk Douglas Uggah.
For some reason, I can’t get the voice of Jim Morrison of The Doors out of my head: “I am the lizard king… I can do anything.”
[Update – Anson Wong was fined 190,000 Malaysian ringgit ($61,000) and sentenced to 6 months in jail – starting on 6 September. Wong requested the return of his laptop but Malaysian authorities kept it. A lawyer for the environment minstry told the court that it contained information about alleged related illegal activities]
[The New Straits Times reported on 22 February 2012 that a Malaysian Appeal Court had freed Anson Wong from jail]