KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 — His wildlife smuggling earned him the title “Lizard King” and led wildlife groups to dub him “public enemy number one”, but the name Anson Wong drew a blank with Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel, according to an Al Jazeera reporter on the trail of the convicted smuggler’s comeback.
Steve Chao, a presenter on the “101 East” programme with the international news channel, alleged that Wong continues to operate openly in Penang and holds wildlife trading permits, despite authorities purportedly revoking Wong’s and his family’s permits in 2010, after he was convicted of smuggling endangered snakes.
“Despite being from Penang, he’s never heard of the ‘Lizard King’, which, to us, is quite shocking,” Chao told The Malay Mail Online yesterday in a phone interview, referring to Wong with his popular moniker.
He added that the minister appeared in the dark over sanctions supposedly imposed on Wong’s trade following his conviction.
“We spoke to the natural resources minister, Palanivel. In 2010, when Perhilitan (Department of Wildlife and National Parks) decided that Anson Wong should be stripped of all permits for wildlife, and companies related to wildlife, he said that the decision should be standing today. But according to the paper trail, it is not,” he added.
Far from being kept away from the trade, Chao alleged that the wildlife dealer instead kept exotic animals such rare tortoises, wild cats from North Africa, albino pythons, white and yellow snakes, deadly vipers, and chameleons in stash houses in Penang.
According to the reporter, one of Wong’s trusted distributors, an Indonesian, would bribe Customs officials here to allow wildlife to be shipped by boat from ports in Penang to Jakarta, a different method from the customary air shipping.
Chao alleged that the smuggling includes moving critically-endangered wildlife from countries like Madagascar, India and Sri Lanka to the United States and various parts of Europe. Among the species traded were the Ploughshare tortoise from Madagascar, of which there are only 400 adults left in the world.
An adult female Ploughshare can go on the black market for a whopping US$24,000 (RM76,284) and is usually sold as an exotic pet.
The “Lizard King’s” other offerings are said to include the Indian star tortoise from India, as well as sun bears, pangolins and small deer from Malaysia. An adult pangolin could fetch US$1,000 (RM3,180).
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth at least US$19 billion annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund in 2012.
The international conservation group also said last December that wildlife trafficking - which is the fourth largest illegal global trade after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking - is being run increasingly by organised crime syndicates to buy weapons, to fund terrorists, and to finance civil conflicts.
“Trade in wildlife is no longer just a green crime,” said Chao.
“We’re seeing increasing shipments for wildlife mixed in together with other illegal goods like cocaine and heroin,” he added.
Chao related an incident in 2010 when an incoming wildlife shipment, monitored by the Indonesian distributor and bound for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, was initially approved by crooked Customs officials, but they were taken aback upon discovering cocaine in the shipment.
“The Customs officials there personally called him and said, ‘you’ve got drugs with the shipment’. He had to get a lawyer to get the person transporting it to get it out,” said Chao, referring to Indonesian distributor.
“It seemed to suggest that Customs officials were specifically okay with illegal shipments of wildlife, but when they found the drugs, they had to do something about it,” he continued, adding that the incident upset the Indonesian.
Wong was initially sentenced to five years’ jail for attempting to smuggle 95 boa constrictors in his luggage from Penang to Jakarta in 2010. But his sentence was reduced to just 17 months on appeal and he was released in February 2012.
Chao said that based on his year-long undercover investigation, Wong’s wife, or ex-wife (her status is unclear), and one of his sons are playing increasingly bigger roles in the multi-million dollar business.
“Posing as dealers, we got inside the Lizard King’s syndicate, speaking to long-time distributors, to allies-turned rivals, to current-day employees. We presented our sometimes alarming findings to experts, who said that none of the Lizard King’s present day operations would be possible without the complicit help of Malaysian authorities,” Chao wrote on Al Jazeera’s website.
Al Jazeera’s 101 East “Return of the Lizard King” premieres on Friday at 6.30am, with the first repeat later at 6.30pm.