I decided to mix things up a bit around here. Instead of my normal news post, I will be writing a story. I hope you enjoy.
We started this whole operation almost five years ago. We set up a front: a small exotic pet store which specialized in corals and tropical fish. The store was fully operational. Customers walked in and out without a clue of the ulterior motives we had. I ordered fish that were nearly impossible to obtain in the United States. Then, after what seemed to be an eternity of waiting, we launched our trap.
I sent a letter to one Anson Wong. We had first heard his name when we interviewed animal traffickers. Initially, we thought that he was simply a big player in the game. Eventually, however, we learned that he wasn’t just a big player. He was the player: the man who organized almost all foreign animal trafficking in South eastern Asia.
Animal trafficking may not seem like a particularly big deal, but believe me, this is no simple import/export business. International treaties like CITIES are in place to prevent the trafficking of endangered animals, but they don’t have any teeth. First off, many countries do not abide by the rules because they did not sign it. Also, it allows people to trade the animals if they were bred in captivity. The problem here is that many people simply claim that their animal was “bred in captivity,” even though it was caught in the wild. Once captured, the market is fairly specific for each animal. Bears have their gall bladders removed for traditional medicines. Tigers and big cats are killed for their pelts. Monkeys are captured as pets. Reptiles killed for skins and sometimes sold as pets. The way these creatures are collected is also cruel. Most traders will kill animals just for the parts with monetary value. If an animal must be kept alive, they will commonly kill babies’ mothers and fathers and simply take the baby out of the wild.
I worked undercover in Wong’s organization for some time. He, like most organized crime leaders, and make no mistake, it is highly organized, Wong bordered on megalomania. I was supposed to be his biographer. Wong showed me his captive breeding zoos. They were little more than cages placed in his large estate. There was no great difficulty in seeing through the mirage. These animals were not bred in captivity. There is a certain look in a wild animal’s eye when it is imprisoned. It seems to ask, “Why?” In one of our last meetings, Wong told me that he had to leave the country for a time to take care of some business. I asked him where he was going.
“India,” he retorted. “An associate tells me that I can have some tigers.”
“Tigers,” I thought to myself, “There are only about 4,000 left in the wild. And I could guess what the tiger’s fate was going to be. Tigers cost $6,000 annually to keep, but a bullet costs only a few cents. The math is easy.
Before he left in his plane, he grabbed my shoulder.
“I have shown you much of my world. Some people would like it dearly to see me behind bars for my….work. Just remember, bad things happen to people who betray me.”
A chill went up my spine. Wong was not one to make empty threats. However, immediately on his departure, I went to the chief Wildlife Department official. I told her that I had information regarding Anson Wong. She laughed. I asked for an explanation of her giggle.
“He is my friend,” she simply replied.
I studied her face. She did not blink. Her smile displayed two rows of slightly angled white teeth.
“Nevermind,” I quickly said and turned and left. Wong has his hand in every government agency I later learned. His influence was far-reaching and solid as a rock. If anything was going to be done, it would have to be in the United States. Unfortunately, that meant for us to get charges to stick, we would need to catch him in the act. But there was a hitch. Wong never traveled with his animals. It was always done through middle men. We needed a good plan for this to work.
My letter told Wong that I was a rare fish dealer and wanted to get some corals to add to my inventory. This seemed like a low enough rung from which to start off. We did not want to make a splash. One toe at a time. We also asked for a list of what he had to offer. A month letter, we had a letter back. It included a list of corals, including a few endangered ones. We were on our way. We ordered the endangered ones and asked to see what he had in way of fish and small reptiles. He gladly complied with a similar list. After another two years of correspondence, gaining Wong’s trust, we asked for a favor.
We had a “friend who was interested in Komodo Dragons.” She “wanted” to meet Wong to set up a deal. No good, he replied, he does not do business deals face to face, much less in North America. But, she insisted. Komodo dragons do not have a huge market as they are so conspicuous, so Wong did not want to lose this one. After haggling on a location, we settled on Mexico, a country not known for its strict animal law enforcement.
It was a warm morning. I waited outside of the airport tunnel entrance with a group of Mexican soldiers behind me. Wong walked around the tunnel. He had a Hawaiian shirt on, as though expecting to have some fun in the sun. I greeted him with a smile and handcuffs.
“Hello old friend.” I chided.
Wong’s face fell momentarily. He knew the game was up. But then, surprisingly, he smiled at me.
“Well done. You really had me going there. But no worries. Just let my wife know that I will be gone for a while and that she should take over the store during my absence…”
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. 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.
This story is, for the most part, sadly true. To get the full story, check out http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/01/asian-wildlife/christy-text/1