Spotlight Asia: Make wildlife criminals pay!
We don’t meet or talk to criminals often. But that’s exactly what I did last November in Bangkok. At a meeting on the implementation of the Asia Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking (ARREST) program, a former poacher sat among us and we also talked on the phone with a current wildlife trafficker.
The poacher explained how easy it was to kill a tiger in the wild, “just kill an elephant first and let the decaying meat to attract tigers.” He received phone orders from wildlife traders who never met. As a poacher, he was paid very little money yet shouldered a much higher risk than the trader. He was caught and put in prison. He quit when he came out. “It got harder to find wild animals and the money was not worth the risk,” he said.
The trader, however, was a completely different story. He told us how easily he makes a killing by getting wildlife from poachers and selling it at a high price to the end market. Anonymity, money and connections are all on his side. He bribes corrupt officials to turn a blind eye to his criminal activities. We asked him if he would change from trafficking wildlife to drugs, his answer was an emphatic “No.” To him, wildlife trafficking is a high-profit, yet low-risk profession.
This was proved yet again recently with the release of Anson Wong, one of world’s most notorious wildlife traffickers. In February, he walked out of Malaysian prison a free man after serving only 17 months and 15 days of a 5-year sentence.
Wong had been convicted after attempting to smuggle 95 boa constrictors, two rhinoceros vipers and one matamata turtle through Kuala Lumpur International Airport on his way to Jakarta, Indonesia. It would have been a routine trip had the lock on his suitcase not broken, spilling the animals onto a baggage conveyor belt thereby triggering his arrest.
Wong’s story was described in the book “The Lizard King” by journalist and author Bryan Christy. For years, Wong was on the “world’s most wanted” list for wildlife trafficking. To apprehend Wong, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set up a special operation called “Operation Chameleon” which lured Wong to Mexico where he was arrested and put in a U.S. federal prison.
Despite having served a prison sentence, Wong has been virtually untouchable by the authorities. Overturning Wong’s conviction in Malaysia, where his vast wildlife trafficking network originates, shows there is a lack of political will to address wildlife crime.
Evidence shows that well-organized crime syndicates that are involved in wildlife trafficking often are also engaging in the trafficking of other contrabands, such as weapons, timber and drugs.
However, wildlife law enforcement and prosecution is often regarded as a low-priority issue. As a result, wildlife crime fighting, from anti-poaching to anti-trafficking is often underfunded. Authorities are not serious about prosecuting wildlife cases or are corrupt and the international legal infrastructure is rife with loopholes. Consequently, prosecutions of known traffickers are rare.
Until the day crimes against nature are regarded as threats to a country’s national security; until wildlife criminals such as Anson Wong are forced to pay a high price for their crimes, I am afraid we will not be able to effectively deter the rampant illegal wildlife trade that is threatening the survival of many endangered species.