National Geographic : 2010 Jan
• around the world---involving dozens of con- victions in U.S. courts---and had contributed to passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, which banned the import of many vulnerable bird species. Overnight, imports of macaws, African gray parrots, and other psittacines had dropped from hundreds of thousands a year to hundreds. By the 1990s illegal reptiles were pouring into the U.S. Prices were skyrocketing---$20,000 or more for a rare tortoise or a Komodo dragon. Reptiles smuggle well: ey're small (at least as babies), durable, and with cold-blooded metab- olisms, can go for long periods without food or water. Valuable and portable, reptiles were the diamonds of wildlife tra cking. Informants had been raising Anson Wong's name for years, and Ops suspected he was the global kingpin of the illegal reptile trade. Anson was already wanted in the U.S. for smuggling rare reptiles to a Florida dealer in the late 1980s. He was said to be acutely aware of his status as an out- law. ere would be no "stinging" Anson Wong, no tricking him with a onetime transaction in a hotel room or catching him personally bring- ing reptiles through an airport. To get him, Ops would have to come up with something clever. Special Agent Morrison---six foot ve, a life- long hunter, the son of a lawyer---was given the lead. He and his boss, Special Agent Rick Leach, leased a unit in a business complex outside San Francisco, not far from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons fa- cility. ey lled their new wholesale enterprise, called Pac Rim, with the only saleable merchan- dise they had, a truckload of seashells and cor- als le over from previous investigations: uted clamshells, spiraling Trochidae shells, hard corals, the sort of white and pink junk sold by aquarium supply stores and beachside tourist shops. ey advertised their con dence items in magazines, and when legitimate orders came in, the seasoned crime ghters boxed and labeled seashell orders themselves. As a complement to Pac Rim, Ops opened a retail business called Silver State Exotics outside Reno, Nevada. e combination gave the agents a circle of economic life---they could import animals in wholesale quantities through Pac Rim and retail what they didn't need for evi- dence through Silver State Exotics, giving Pac Rim the appearance of a thriving global opera- tion (and an income). On October 19, 1995, Morrison sent a fax to Anson's company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, explain- ing that he was a wholesaler of shells and corals interested in expanding into reptiles and amphib- ians. Anson replied with a one-page price list o ering low-end frogs and toads for under ve dollars and house geckos for 30 cents (items known in the pet industry as trash animals), listed by their Latin names. In one case Anson used his own name for a subspecies: ansoni. Two animals on the list stood out---the Fly River turtle (also known as the pig-nosed turtle) and the frilled liz- ard, protected throughout their ranges in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Australia. So in his rst contact with Morrison, a complete strang- er, Anson had o ered a taste of illegal wildlife. Soon Anson was soliciting Morrison with the planet's scarcest, most valuable Appendix I reptiles: Komodo dragons from Indonesia, tua- tara from New Zealand, Chinese alligators, and Madagascan plowshare tortoises, rarest of the rare. Using a corrupt employee in the FedEx HE HAD ACCESS TO EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS, INCLUDING THE ROTHSCHILD'S MYNAH. HE BRAGGED ABOUT HIS SPIX'S MACAWS, A BIRD BELIEVED TO BE EXTINCT IN THE WILD, CLAIMING HE'D RECENTLY SOLD THREE.