Malaysia’s relations with Western countries in recent decades have often been strained, but lately Kuala Lumpur has been winning applause for its international efforts in dealing with global villains.
A crackdown on human trafficking and potential terrorists who try and use the country as a private transit lounge has improved the atmosphere and strengthened ties down the chain of command. But this has produced results from further afield as well. Among them—a personal favourite–was the jailing of an animal poacher that sorely tested relations with the United States.
Anson Wong, a colourful 52-year-old figure, made a lot of money in the illicit trade of animals. Known as the ‘Lizard King’ or the Pablo Escobar of wildlife, he’s currently serving a six-month sentence in Malaysia for attempting to export 95 boa constrictor snakes without a permit.
He attempted to excuse himself by linking smuggling with religious virtue, arguing in court that a lack of time—apparently his clients needed the snakes before the Hari Raya celebration—meant it was impossible to obtain all the necessary permits on time. Poor thing!
Judge Zulhelmy Huasan was having none of this, and fined Wong an additional $60.
This might seem a trifle small when compared with the weightier matters of state. But his jailing can be traced to operations in Mexico, his arrest in the United States and Malaysian promises to beef-up up operations against poachers.
In 2005, a flying unit known as the Wildlife Crime Unit was established to curb smuggling, while earlier last year wildlife special permit approvals were overhauled to make the process more transparent.Importantly, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister Dato Sri Douglas Uggah Embas took control of special permits, and all procedures were re-designed to incorporate Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) into the framework.
A tough-talking Embas said the ministry would rectify weaknesses in enforcement.
‘We want to see where the weaknesses are, whether they are internal, procedural, or legal,’ he said.
In 2000, Anson Wong—whose real name is Wong Keng Liang—pleaded guilty to trafficking wildlife in the US and was sentenced to 71 months in prison. Other charges included money laundering.
He was initially arrested in Mexico two years earlier. Then the 3-year sting operation, Operation Chameleon, infiltrated the network and identified more than 300 different species for import and export that had been concealed in express delivery, regular airline baggage and in commercial shipments of legally approved animal exports.
The Komodo dragon and the Malagasy ploughshare tortoise were among his prized sales, and Wong was dubbed by American scribes as ‘the most important person in the international reptile business.’
In late 2009, he was linked to a seizure of exotic animals in the United States, while the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed that CBS Wildlife and Sungai Rusa Wildlife, two companies owned by Wong, were supplying different types of wildlife to the US. National Geographic, meanwhile, produced a 15-page analysis of Wong’s business activities from his office in Penang where he intended to open the ‘Anson Wong Flora and Fauna Village,’ which would be used to display reptiles and focus on tigers.
Authorities say illicit animal sales are second only to narcotics among all illegal trades, with wildlife smuggling worth between $10 billion and $20 billion a year. Traded items include Chinese medicine, leather goods, tourist trinkets, food items, timber and even musical instruments.
Embas argues Malaysia is improving its record, particularly with the enforcement of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, which provides for stiffer penalties; He says this would drive home the point that the country took poaching seriously.
The act came into force three weeks ago.
Wong’s arrest and enforcement of the act have been widely applauded by wildlife NGOs and foreign governments who are urging the Malaysian government to exert its full powers in a crackdown on animal poaching, smuggling and trading.
Embas, from all reports, appears happy to oblige.