Wildlife Kingpin Jailed

On Monday, September 6, the world's most notorious wildlife dealer, Anson Wong of Malaysia, was sentenced to prison after a lock on his suitcase containing legally protected snakes broke on an airport conveyor belt.

From the island of Penang, Wong operates one of the world's largest legal reptile supply companies, which he has used in the past as a front to smuggle critically endangered wildlife from Australia, China, Madagascar, New Zealand, South America, and elsewhere. His offerings have included snow leopard pelts, panda bear skins, rhino horn, rare birds, and Komodo dragons.

Wong's conviction this week is a first for him in Malaysia, but it is not the first time he has been caught. In the 1990s Wong was the target of Operation Chameleon, a five-year undercover operation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that is widely considered the most successful in U.S. history.

Wong confessed and served more than five years for his smuggling. In 2003 he was released from U.S. prison, returned to Penang, and took over the reins of a company his wife had managed for him while he was in prison. Together, they have also run a zoo.

Wong's arrest and conviction are the latest in a remarkable set of legal actions taken this year by the Malaysian government, spurred by wildlife NGOs, committed individuals, and the media.

Wong was prosecuted under the country's new International Trade in Endangered Species Act, which was used for the first time last month to ensnare two Malagasy women. They were caught at Kuala Lumpur International Airport smuggling critically endangered radiated tortoises, plowshare tortoises, and other wildlife into Malaysia in their suitcases.

This summer, parliament further strengthened Malaysia's legal framework for protecting wildlife by updating the country's national conservation law for the first time since 1972. These new laws, and the willingness of prosecutors and judges to apply them, are models of change.

Wildlife trafficking may be the world's most profitable form of transnational organized crime. The reason is not money alone, although the profit margins can be spectacular. The reason is the low risk: When it comes to wildlife trafficking, there is little chance of getting caught. Around the world, law enforcement dedicated to wildlife smuggling is woefully undermanned and underfunded. And even when smugglers are caught, the most common penalty they face is a fine, often no larger than a parking ticket.

Wong was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 190,000 Malaysian ringgit (U.S.$61,000). The Malagasy women each got a year. Wong's lawyer argued for leniency because it was his first offense in Malaysia, which it was, but only because the wildlife department has never brought a case against him. Instead, his arrest was the work of an airline security officer, who noticed the broken lock and checked for damage.

The government seized Wong's laptop and his cell phone. If examined correctly, they could break open global wildlife smuggling -- including connections to government officials around the world -- Wong has long boasted about. The devices should be investigated by a team that includes officials independent of the wildlife department, as well as international law enforcement.

This week's conviction is an important step forward, with positive implications for wildlife around the world. But it is not the result of work by Malaysia's wildlife department, whose leadership has in the past defended Anson Wong as an honest businessman. Wong is not Malaysia's only wildlife trafficker, either. Wong's conviction is a sign that Malaysian law has sharper teeth. Now law enforcement needs a stronger bite.

Read Bryan Christy's article, The Kingpin, in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine.