Lizard King, Anson Wong, Malaysia and illegal wildlife trade
The New Straits Times: An American-penned hardcover details how Malaysian Anson Wong, dubbed 'the most important person in the international reptile business', was nabbed in Mexico and also his alleged links with Malaysian officials, writes lizabeth John. It's a story of crime, wildlife smuggling and money. It stars flamboyant characters dripping with gold chains, driving luxury vehicles and politicians -- the smugglers who are as slippery as the rare reptiles they traffic across the globe for sums of money that beggar belief.
But what is so fascinating about The Lizard King or relevant here is the capture of one Malaysian reptile smuggler and his vast reach and influence.
Key agencies linked to the smuggler are the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) and the Royal Malaysian Customs Department.
Perhilitan enforces the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) through checks, permits and quotas for the wildlife trade.
Customs controls what goods enter and exit at major entry points in the country.
Both agencies have responded to the links drawn between them and the smuggler in this recently published work of non-fiction by American lawyer and writer, Bryan Christy.
The 240-page hardcover that went on sale in Malaysia last month is dominated by the story of a cat-and-mouse chase.
It is the story of the Van Nostrands -- once the primary supplier of reptiles to pet stores and zoos around the world -- and the determined special agent Chip Bepler, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who tries to nab them.
The father-son team of Ray and Mike Van Nostrand ran Strictly Reptiles and were known as the most notorious reptile smugglers in the United States .
At its height, the company occupied a 10,000 square-foot warehouse in Hollywood overflowing with a menagerie of reptiles.
It boasted a frog room, arachnid room, python rooms, a locked venomous room and even walk-in freezers in which dead snakes and spiders were kept for voodoo rituals.
With specimens like giant Aldabra tortoises priced at US$22,500 (RM78,000) a pair, the money was good.
But the real thrill lay in collecting the rare, the unique and the hardly-ever-seen.
One of the Van Nostrands' many suppliers was Malaysian wildlife trader Anson Wong.
The book describes Wong as "the most important person in the international reptile business" and "reptile smuggling's crown jewel".
The chapter "Fortress Malay-sia" tells of Wong's dealings with an undercover agent that leads to his arrest in Mexico City in 1998.
Wong was extradited to the US and in 2001, was sentenced in a US federal court in San Francisco to 71 months in prison for trafficking in rare and endangered wildlife.
It was dubbed one of the largest cases of illegal trade ever prosecuted in the US .
Drawing from legal documents, official investigation reports and interviews, Christy describes how Wong had laundered protected star tortoises by the hundreds though Malaysia and the Middle East .
Frilled dragons, native to New Guinea and Australia , turned up at the Miami International Airport accompanied by Malaysian paperwork.
Wong boasts about working things out with a high-level government official.
Christy also describes the awe of one human courier when he was received at the Penang airport and driven to Wong's office by a high-ranking Customs official.
And the book is peppered with Perhilitan officers.
Wong also boasted about bribing Cites officials to falsify permit details.
Perhilitan officers would sign a permit allowing the trade of a protected animal under the terms of the convention.
The convention ensures that international trade in wild plants and animals does not threaten their survival.
Quotes from recorded telephone conversations and from faxes and emails between Wong and the US agent who posed as a wildlife importer, tell how the former took advantage of loopholes in the law.
He would arrange for a fall guy to get arrested with smuggled wildlife and then buy the confiscated animals that are auctioned off by authorities, legally, under the law. All the while knowing he would be safe. As one quote reads: "I could sell a panda and nothing. As long as I'm here, I'm safe."
Obsessed with meaner, hotter creatures
As a second-grader, Bryan Christy brought a king snake to school for show-and-tell. "Kids gathered, naturally; teachers from other grades poked their heads into the classroom, older boys stopped me in the hallway; The principal called me to his office so he could look inside my pillowcase.
"I don't think I ever recovered from the celebrity I achieved simply for holding what other people were afraid of, what they had been taught was wrong," Christy writes in his book The Lizard King.
It seemed like reptiles were always treated as nature's outlaws and for this one-time lawyer and Fulbright scholar, a crime story about reptiles seemed like the perfect vehicle to tell a reptile story and make it interesting even for people who didn't like them.
This is what he achieved in The Lizard King -- opened a small but rare window into the world of reptile smuggling where a childhood fondness for creepy crawlies morphs into an adult obsession for bigger, meaner, rarer and hotter creatures.
And when he discovered the ingenuity of Mike Van Norstrand, a king of that wild universe, and the incredible effort of agent Chip Bepler, who strove to stop him, Christy knew he had a reptile thriller.
"When I found out how their relationship ended, I wanted to write a book to honour that story," he said.
So Christy sought out Van Nostrand, slowly befriending him and finally persuading him to open up about himself, his world and legal troubles.
Then one day, Van Nostrand instructed his lawyer to turn over six years' worth of legal files to Christy.
"As a lawyer, getting access to a criminal's files was an incredible gift.
"I got the files late in my work so it was also an additional way to confirm that all my facts were right."
It took Christy four years of research and three months of writing to realise The Lizard King. Dozens of official sources and countless meetings with every major character who played a part in the real-life version of the story added to the workload.
The response, he said, had been good in the conservation and wildlife trade communities.
That's no surprise when a book tells of turtles stuffed into suitcases and snakes smuggled in trousers, while painting a very human picture of crafty smugglers -- with insights into their childhood, families and obsessions.
The book isn't meant to judge.
"There are high walls between these two worlds. Midway into this book I realised I might be able to build a window.
"It made me realise the book might be important as well as entertaining and led me to ground it in history people might not know."
But the writer still thinks that illegal trafficking is a horrendous crime.
"There is not a country in the world that adequately polices illegal wildlife trade.
"By definition illegal trade is cross-border and there are no adequate resources or manpower devoted to it.
"Wildlife crime is crime and source countries and consumer countries need to treat it that way."
A work of fiction, says Wildlife Department
It's all fiction -- that's the response from the National Parks and Wildlife Department (Perhilitan) to some of the startling revelations in The Lizard King.
In a faxed response to the New Sunday Times, the department said it did not confer any immunity or special treatment to anyone in the wildlife trade and questioned the author's motives.
"Where the Wildlife and National Parks Department is concerned, this book is simply fiction.
"There is no reference or citation, thus its reliability and integrity is questionable," the fax read.
In the end notes, author Bryan Christy did list his sources.
The book was based on thousands of pages of telephone transcripts and investigative reports from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
In response to our questions, Christy said conversations in quotations were taken verbatim from recorded telephone conversations.
Christy added he had access to agents across the country and had assistance from enforcement agencies in the Netherlands who helped in the US investigations.
Lead investigator Chip Bepler's personal notes were made available to Christy and the US attorney's office in Miami made its prosecutors available throughout South Florida where much of the story is based.
Christy said he met most of the major characters, including Anson Wong whom he interviewed last year. He described Wong as "very gracious".
Perhilitan said Wong carried out his business legally and in compliance with domestic laws.
"The key person (Wong) mentioned in the said book has been compounded and dealt with under the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972," the department said.
In a follow-up telephone conversation, a Perhilitan officer clarified that this was for previous offences and not the case which led to Wong's arrest in 1998.
On the disposal of confiscated animals, the department said it had been carried out in compliance with procedures.
On Malaysia being a conduit for the illegal wildlife trade, the department said: "Due to the strategic location surrounded by rich biodiversity countries, Malaysia is the best target used as transit point to smuggle animals ever since the illicit wildlife flourishing (sic)."
Meanwhile, the Customs Department said it would investigate the incident implicating one of its officers.
In an email response, head of the public relations unit, Hamzah Ahamad, assured that if at all true, it was an isolated case.
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