Escaped Snakes Lead to Jail for Notorious Wildlife Trafficker

Anson Wong, one of the world’s most infamous traders in illegal wildlife, has been jailed for attempting to smuggle a cache of snakes and a turtle into Indonesia from Malaysia. Wong was caught red-handed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in late August with 95 boa constrictors, two rhinoceros vipers, and a matamata turtle after his bag containing the reptiles split open while he was in transit to Jakarta.

Nicknamed the Lizard King, Wong ran his trafficking operation out of Penang, Malaysia, with customers all over the world. He typically used middle-men as couriers rather than risk his own capture. Wong has, however, been jailed for smuggling before. In 2001, he was captured and convicted in the United States under the Lacy Act for trafficking in illegal wildlife, after an elaborate five-year sting operation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He received a sentence of 71 months in federal prison, a $60,000 fine, and was prohibited from selling animals to anyone in the U.S. for three years after his release. Jail did not significantly impact his operations. Shortly after his arrest, Wong’s wife and business partner established a new company, CBS Wildlife, which exported wildlife to the U.S. while his main company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, continued to ship animals despite the ban.

This time, his sentence was less severe. After pleading guilty under Malaysia’s International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008 for exporting the reptiles without a permit, Wong received a mere six months in prison and a $61,600 fine.

The local attorney general’s office has filed an appeal against the leniency of the sentence. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Wildlife and National Parks Department, which has responsibility for enforcing the wildlife trade laws, has vowed to clean up its ranks after allegations of corruption and complicity with Wong’s business.

Malaysia is seen by many as a hub for the illicit wildlife trade with its rich biodiversity, lax law enforcement, and proximity to the major markets of the Far East. Wong’s light punishment is unlikely to send a signal to other would-be traffickers that wildlife crime doesn’t pay. For those who don’t mind a short stint in jail, it clearly does pay, with such smuggling worth an estimated $10-20 billion annually.