This story appears in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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.
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 ingredient 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 endangered 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.
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 amphibians. 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 FedEx 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."
In one instance Anson offered Morrison 20 Timor pythons for $15,000. Morrison said he was interested but worried that the snakes would lack CITES paperwork. "They'll definitely be coming with papers," Anson said. "I will have a fall guy and he will get arrested. Plus the goods will be confiscated, and the goods will be sold to me by the department."
Then Anson offered Morrison horns of Sumatran and Javanese rhinoceroses, both forbidden Appendix I animals. He talked openly about getting shahtoosh, the "king of wool," from the Tibetan antelope. He had access to extraordinary birds, including the Rothschild's mynah, whose wild population was estimated to number fewer than 150. He bragged about his Spix's macaws, a bird now believed to be extinct in the wild, claiming he'd recently sold three. The black market rate for a Spix's macaw was $100,000. His expanding list of astonishing illegal rarities included panda skins and snow leopard pelts.
Perceiving Anson Wong as only a reptile smuggler had been a terrible mistake, allowing him to maneuver freely across the globe. Reptiles were repulsive, repulsive was invisible, invisible was money. If Anson could deliver on his offers, cheap, legal reptiles shipped to pet stores around the world were a front for a vast, illegal wildlife-smuggling empire.
"I can get anything here from anywhere," he wrote Morrison. "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," he boasted. "I could sell a panda—and, nothing. As long as I'm here, I'm safe."
Finally, after five years and half a million dollars' worth of illegal trade, Morrison was ready to breach Fortress Malaysia, as he called Anson's base. He proposed that Anson partner with him in a new venture, a kind of Endangered Species, Inc., specializing in the rarest animals on the planet. "Top dollar, hard-to-find things," Anson responded. "I've put myself in that position where people will offer me things first before they go elsewhere." He was in.
Morrison suggested they start out by smuggling bear bile, an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Anson agreed that there was high demand for bear bile in China and South Korea, and he said he had a client willing to pay up to a hundred dollars an ounce for the liquid. "Please remember," he wrote Morrison, "I am not selling direct—too dangerous." Instead, he would use a middleman.
Morrison said he too had a partner, who could arrange for the bile from Canada, but she wouldn't work with Anson until she met him in person. Anson was reluctant. Because of the outstanding warrant on him, he couldn't enter U.S. territory, he told Morrison, and he was leery of Canada.
"We can meet anywhere here in Asia," Anson wrote. Argentina, South Africa, Peru, France, and England were all OK too. "No New Zealand," he stipulated, "or Australia."
They settled on Mexico.
The Malaysian Phoenix
With Anson Wong's arrest that September day in 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accomplished its mission, but it may have lost a war. "We focused everything on one climax," George Morrison told me. Exhausted, he left full-time undercover work. Rick Leach, the group's supervisor, retired, and soon Special Operations had all but shut its doors.
Five years later, on November 10, 2003, Anson went free. Reporters flocked to Malaysia. They parked in front of his headquarters on Penang, a tiny island off the west coast, and tried to take his photograph. He refused to speak to the press.
At the time, Malaysia was embroiled in a smuggling scandal involving western lowland gorillas, a critically endangered species. Traffickers had used Nigeria's University of Ibadan Zoological Gardens as a front to smuggle four infants, snatched from the forest in Cameroon, to Malaysia's Taiping Zoo. The Taiping Four incident had sparked international outrage. In the midst of this commotion, Anson sat down at his computer and typed a one-line message on Vorras.net, a commercial message board frequented by international wildlife traders: "we need Nigerian primates. pls quote CnF Malaysia."
Anson was back in business.
In truth he had never really stopped. During his imprisonment, Cheah Bing Shee continued to run the operation. Now Anson began to frequent Internet message boards, seeking reptiles from India, Madagascar, and Sudan; insects from Mozambique; and "10 tons a month" of sheep horns. He has offered to sell an array of wildlife, including Malaysian reptiles, mynah birds, parrots, and half a million dollars' worth of wild agarwood, prized for its aromatic qualities. To a request for dead birds and mammals, he replied, "We have always specimens."
Since his release he's had only one brush with the law. On March 16, 2006, Manny Esguerra, an alert Thai Airways cargo employee stationed in Manila, questioned a shipment of reptiles en route from the Philippines to Sungai Rusa Wildlife in Malaysia. The consignment lacked export permits, in violation of Philippine law. Esguerra, as required by his airline, telephoned the intended recipient, which confirmed the shipment. Esguerra referred the case to Philippine authorities. Then the Philippine supplier named in the shipping records evaporated. The seized reptiles themselves vanished before authorities had a chance to investigate further, turning up later at a remote Philippine rescue center. Local news articles presented the case as a success, but no one was arrested. The only identifiable person who could be connected to the illegal shipment was safe in Fortress Malaysia—Anson Wong.
What initially drew my attention to Anson was an offhand comment by Mike Van Nostrand, owner of Strictly Reptiles in South Florida, among the world's largest reptile import-export wholesalers and one of Anson's biggest customers. I was writing a book about Van Nostrand's past as a reptile smuggler. "Two weeks after he got out," Van Nostrand told me in the summer of 2004, "Anson offered me something he really shouldn't have." It was a Gray's monitor, a fruit-eating Philippine lizard thought to have been extinct until the late 1970s and one of the animals Anson had gone to prison for smuggling. Van Nostrand, who had done jail time himself for smuggling reptiles and wanted to avoid a repeat, was shocked. "Boy, you never quit," he replied.
In September 2006 I rented an apartment in South Florida and went to work for Strictly Reptiles. I spent three months in the warehouse sweeping floors, cleaning snake cages, and unpacking reptile shipments—including ones from Anson—working toward a single question for Van Nostrand: "Would you introduce me?" Employees repeatedly accused me of being a federal agent. They photographed me. They wrote down my license plate number. I was threatened with a baseball bat and had a .357 aimed at my head. But eventually Van Nostrand and I became friends. A few days before my lease ran out, I asked my question. "Sure," he answered. "Anson'll talk to you. He loves to talk about himself."
Inside the Fortress
Situated in the trendy Pulau Tikus ("rat island") section of Penang, Sungai Rusa Wildlife might easily be mistaken for a hair salon. No wider than a family garage and unidentified, it's one of dozens of units along a quiet strip of retail shops offering tummy reduction, skin care, and spa treatments. When I walked in on March 2, 2007, a black BMW and a windowless delivery van bearing the address of Anson's Penang-based reptile farm were parked out front. Next door was Xie Design, an interior furnishings business Anson's wife operates.
Anson shook my hand with that significant extra squeeze some men give you just before the release. He led me past stacks of live tarantulas in deli cups, scattered paperwork, and shipping boxes to his private office, a cramped, windowless room. Although he'd advertised his company on the Web as doing "U.S. $50 million to U.S. $100 million" in annual sales, the fanciest item in the room was the cell phone on his desk.
After I sat down, Anson pointed to three sets of photographs laminated in plastic and taped to his office door. "My wife put those up to remind me to ask myself if it was worth it," he said. "Beautiful, huh?"
They were evidence photos of Indian star tortoises he'd smuggled, each page stamped by the Northern District of California federal court. They may have been a reminder to Anson from his wife, but they were also a warning to every person who stepped through his door: I, Anson Wong, have run the toughest legal gantlet in the world, and I am here.
He was deceptively boyish-looking. He wore large, round glasses and had a ponytail, which was flecked with gray. At 49, his face was without stress. He had the cultured air of a successful artist, a sculptor maybe, and he spoke with a pleasant British curl to his perfect English. Behind his head was a map of the world. Behind me slept a reticulated python, the world's longest python.
Anson said he'd started in the wildlife trade in the 1980s, with a company called Exotic Skins and Alives. Back then, he said, Malaysia gave legal protection only to indigenous wildlife, so he traded freely in endangered species from around the world. Anson smiled. "Anything," he said.
I said I was writing a book about his U.S. customer Mike Van Nostrand, who had also played a cat-and-mouse game with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "You're the main guy in Asia," I said. "Mike told me that if it wasn't for Anson Wong, there would be no reptile industry in the United States."
Anson named a rival trader in Indonesia and another in Madagascar. Then he laughed and shook his head. "Well, I guess there aren't that many of us."
Wildlife is an integral part of every Asian economy, I said, and I'm interested in the line between man and nature.
"Ahhh," he said. Anson raised his arms and put his fists together. "Always in conflict."
"I'm building another zoo," he said, pointing to a 30-page document on his desk titled "Anson Wong, Flora and Fauna Village." "The plans were approved yesterday." I began thumbing through the architectural drawings.
Anson's partners were his wife and Michael Ooi, an internationally renowned orchid dealer. (Michael's brother Gino operates Malaysia's largest rare bird facility, Penang Bird Park.) For years the Wongs and Michael Ooi had run a zoo on Penang called Bukit Jambul Orchid, Hibiscus and Reptile Garden.
Zoos make good cover. Smugglers in control of a zoo can move endangered species with CITES paperwork, and a zoo can use its breeding program to explain the appearance of a new animal. CITES generally doesn't monitor what happens to an animal after a zoo imports it: A gorilla can be sold domestically, or if it dies (or is killed), can be cut up for meat, or parts, or even stuffed. Anson's portion of the zoo was called Bukit Jambul Reptile Sanctuary, and it had enabled him to host nature lovers and wildlife experts from around the world while he secretly smuggled rare animals through his other company.
Anson told me his new zoo would far surpass Bukit Jambul. He would still display reptiles, and he would charge visitors next to nothing to get in, but this time he expected to make a lot of money. He had a new focus: big cats. "I love tigers," he said.
"Captive breeding," Anson smiled, "that is the future."
I looked up with an adrenaline jolt. Tigers are all but extinct in the wild, with only about 4,000 left. Now Anson Wong was planning to make tigers his specialty.
There's a valuable black market for tigers. Tibetans wear tiger-skin robes; wealthy collectors display their heads; exotic restaurants sell their meat; their penis is said to be an aphrodisiac; and Chinese covet their bones for health cures, including tiger-bone wine, the "chicken soup" of Chinese medicine. Experts have put the black market value of a dead, adult male tiger at $10,000 or more. In some Asian countries, tourist attractions called tiger parks secretly operate as front operations for tiger farming—butchering captive tigers for their parts and offering a potential market for wild-tiger poachers too. (Keeping an adult tiger costs $5,000 a year in food alone, but a bullet costs only a dollar.)
Anson has a dark history with big cats. During Operation Chameleon he had asked Morrison's help to have tigers he was raising mounted for sale as trophies. He has offered to smuggle a cougar out of the U.S., and he wanted to sell Morrison an Appendix I marbled cat. After his prison release, tiger cubs he owned were found on display at a Kuala Lumpur pet store. Anson was practiced at circumventing Malaysian prohibitions on keeping tigers and other endangered species by securing "special permits"—licenses granted on the recommendation of Perhilitan, the wildlife department, to private individuals, theme parks, and zoos.
He glanced at my shoulder bag. "George Morrison recorded everything," he said, and stood up. He rapped his knuckles against his wall calendar. "I'm busy," he said, indicating forthcoming commitments: Taipei, Hong Kong, Thailand.
"I'm here this weekend," I offered.
"Weekends are for family," he replied. "We'll talk, but not this trip."
He walked me to the door. "When you're done with your book, we should talk about my story," he said.
That's when I made a mistake. I told him I'd written an article exposing a questionable agreement between the U.S. government and a British coin dealer to sell the world's most valuable—and stolen—coin and split the profit. Normally, telling an ex-felon you'd given the government a black eye was a sure bet to improve your relationship. But momentarily I'd forgotten the premise for Operation Chameleon: Anson and his government were friends.
Anson stared at me. "So, you're a journalist," he said, stiffening.
Apparently, he had mistaken me for a biographer. I started to reply, but he interrupted. "Journalists who uncover what people want left alone can get killed," he said, his voice very calm.
Kecik-kecik Cili Padi
One day in late December 2007, Anson's black Mercedes-Benz pulled into Penang International Airport and picked up two of Malaysia's top wildlife enforcement officials, Perhilitan's law enforcement division director, Sivananthan Elagupillay, and his boss, Deputy Director General Misliah Mohamad Basir. The officers had flown in from Kuala Lumpur for a press conference launching Flora and Fauna Village, now a joint venture between Penang's forestry department and Anson Wong and Michael Ooi's enterprise. It would be a five-acre zoo carved out of the Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve, and to help finance it, the Penang state government was contributing 700,000 ringgit (U.S. $200,000). A photograph in Malaysia's newspaper The Star showed government officials inspecting the zoo's new tiger den.
"The price will be very affordable as our aim of setting the village is also to help conserve the endangered species," Ooi told reporters.
Anson had long boasted his government influence. Now he had the open support of both the Penang government and Malaysia's wildlife department. Misliah's presence was ironic. During Operation Chameleon Misliah had been the wildlife official in charge on Penang. She signed his CITES permits. Within four years of Anson's arrest, she was promoted to director of Perhilitan's law enforcement division, and by 2007 she'd been given the department's number two job.
I wondered what Misliah thought of the man who had smuggled so much endangered wildlife right under her nose.
"He is my good friend," Misliah giggled, sitting behind her desk in her spacious office at Perhilitan headquarters. She was a plump little woman, hardly more than a round head wrapped in a Muslim's white tudung scarf. She was swaddled in a sky blue shawl over a baju kurung, a long blouse and sarong, and wore petite brown sandals. Her voice was honestly the sweetest I'd ever heard.
I'd been warned that Misliah had two prejudices: She disliked Americans, and she thought all Americans were obsessed with Anson Wong.
"You know," I said, "I'm an American. And when it comes to Malaysia and wildlife, all we ever hear about in the U.S. is one story."
"What is that?" she asked pleasantly.
I smiled. "Anson Wong."
Misliah giggled. She had joined Perhilitan in the early 1980s, about the same time Anson started in the reptile business, and had been posted to Penang for much of her career. "I spent more than ten years inspecting his shipments," she said. I tried to picture Misliah, crowbar in hand, prying open Anson's wooden shipping crates, reaching into boxes crammed with biting Tokay geckos, venomous mangrove snakes, and other discouragingly aggressive animals Anson called cover species, because he put them on top of illegal animal shipments.
She hadn't known much about reptiles when she started, she said, but now she did. "Everything I know about them I learned from opening Anson's boxes." Misliah turned to look at her bookshelves. Though she hadn't seen him much since her move to Kuala Lumpur, she still borrowed Anson's books on bird identification from time to time. When her officers can't identify an animal, she tells her people to call Anson. "He's better than anyone in the department at identifying wildlife, so why not go to him," she said. "He's the most knowledgeable in the country."
I noticed that Misliah rarely blinks.
"He is very smart," she continued, explaining that Anson does all his deals over the phone. "In Malaysia you must catch someone with the animals. Not like the U.S. with the Lacey Act," she said contemptuously.
The Lacey Act makes it a federal crime to violate wildlife laws, even those of a foreign country, and a wildlife smuggler doesn't have to be caught in possession of an animal to face felony prosecution. Misliah considers Anson's conviction under the Lacey Act illegitimate and has publicly accused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of framing him.
"They said he had Komodos, but he never handles animals himself—he has runners everywhere," Misliah said. "When he was in prison, Anson wrote me letters. He bribed his way. They treated him like a king!" She explained that his business had gone down while he was in prison and his wife was in charge. "But," she said, "now it is going up."
Malaysia's second highest wildlife law enforcement officer speaks of her country's most notorious illegal trafficker like a doting aunt.
"People say, 'How can you give him his license?' " A smile wreathed Misliah's face. "He was a very bad boy, but if we don't give him a license, he would just do it anyway." This way, she said, they could keep their eye on him.
To this day Misliah vouches for Anson. "Anson Wong has carried out his business legally and complying [sic] the needs and requirements under the domestic law. He and his business in peninsular Malaysia have been monitored closely by this department," her office asserted in a written statement to the press in 2008.
She was also in favor of legalized tiger and bear-bile farming. "Why not?" she asked me.
Misliah Mohamad Basir, so inconspicuous, seemingly so benign, is one of the most powerful wildlife decision-makers on the planet. On her watch Malaysia has become a global trafficking hub.
I kept coming back to how delightful she seemed in person. "Isn't Misliah the sweetest little woman you ever met?" I asked a senior Perhilitan officer.
The officer studied me for a moment, then smiled. "In Perhilitan we have a saying about her: Kecik-kecik cili padi."
A park ranger standing nearby nodded.
"The smallest chilies are always the hottest."
Misliah had mentioned an adversary named Chris Shepherd, an intrepid investigator who has drawn attention to black market wildlife operations throughout Southeast Asia. "He says we're just a transit country," Misliah told me, with obvious disdain. "He says we do nothing to stop smuggling."
Shepherd, a Canadian, works for TRAFFIC, the trade-monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Based in Cambridge, England, with offices around the world, TRAFFIC's investigators monitor crime and pass what they learn to host country law enforcement agencies. Shepherd is the lead investigator in the Southeast Asia headquarters, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. Over the past decade he's published a mountain of reports covering illegal trade in bear parts, elephants, civets, Indonesia's laughing thrushes, the Indian star tortoise, the serow, the Roti Island snake-necked turtle, the Sumatran tiger, and more. He is widely considered among the region's best investigators, and his reports benefit conservationists and law enforcement around the world.
When I visited Shepherd and asked if he would show me his Anson Wong file, he looked at me blankly. He opened a file cabinet and removed a thin folder from a half-empty drawer. After scanning a few pages, he shook his head.
Not one NGO investigator I met in Southeast Asia, Shepherd included, had ever laid eyes on Anson Wong. Time and again I found experts eager to take me to see atrocities: bear cubs in Vietnam dipped in boiling water to intensify the "life force" in bear-paw soup, orangutans chained in the backyards of Indonesian generals, endangered birds openly for sale in Asian markets. But when I asked what connections could be made between a scene and a criminal organization, no one had a single example of a syndicate being mapped out the way one would expect to see on any low-budget cop show.
"Their brains all work like a camera," George Morrison told me. NGOs, their donors, and the media tend to focus on wildlife crimes they can see, while multinational criminal syndicates operate hidden behind thickets of corporate records, CITES permits, and trade data.
NGO staff have many demands on their time: fund-raising and species reports, press interviews, market surveys, donor meetings, and bill paying. NGOs are not police. They have no enforcement authority, their employees depend for their visas on the wildlife officials they might investigate, and if NGOs push too hard, they invite trouble. In 2008, TRAFFIC issued a report on the Sumatran trade in tiger parts and urged Indonesia to increase its enforcement. In response, Indonesia froze TRAFFIC's activities, a move tantamount to expulsion. Tonny Soehartono, the Ministry of Forestry official responsible for Indonesia's action, explained his reasoning: "TRAFFIC attacked my country."
TRAFFIC itself has just three investigators covering Southeast Asia and only a hundred staff worldwide. The CITES secretariat employs only one—that's right, one—enforcement officer. Interpol likewise employs one person to manage its wildlife-crime program. Other countries have useful tools, such as wiretap authority, but they don't have the long reach of the Lacey Act, and now U.S. Special Operations has dwindled to three or fewer agents.
At a U.S. congressional committee hearing on the links between national security and wildlife trafficking, I met a woman with a Ph.D. in veterinary science who had helped prepare some of the informational material. "I want to go work undercover in Southeast Asia," she told me. I was impressed: a bright young professional eager to take on the undercover agent's life. "I have some vacation time coming up," she said, "and I'm going to do it."
Is there any other area of law enforcement where a private citizen could even imagine doing undercover work on her vacation?
Misliah dislikes Shepherd because his criticisms appear in the news, but cases do well in the press only if they involve iconic animals that garner catchy names like Taiping Four or Bangkok Six (smuggled orangutans). They don't do well if they're the simple fish called humphead wrasse, or the 14 tons of turtles, monitor lizards, and pangolins found floating in a deserted boat off the coast of China.
One cause for hope may be a new regional organization—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN). Established four years ago, ASEAN-WEN brings together customs agents, wildlife officers, prosecutors, and police from each of its ten member countries. Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. are also involved, with much of ASEAN-WEN's funding provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It's a testament to ASEAN-WEN's potential that Anson Wong subscribes to its newsletter.
Last August Misliah responded to allegations of a corrupt relationship between her department and Anson Wong: "As far as Malaysia is concerned, he abides by local laws and has the necessary licenses," she said. "What he does outside the country is not our concern."