National Geographic : 2010 Jan
' the U.S. for three years a er his prison release. If the judge thought a ban on Anson Wong would work, he was mistaken. Shortly a er his arrest, Anson's wife and business partner, Cheah Bing Shee, established a new company, CBS Wildlife, which exported wildlife to the U.S. while Anson was in prison. His main company, Sungai Rusa Wildlife, continued to ship despite the ban. Now that he's free, Anson has launched a new wildlife venture, a zoo that promises to be his most audacious enterprise yet. NUMBERS GAME It is almost impossible to name an animal or plant species anywhere on the planet that has not been traded---legally or illegally---for its meat, fur, skin, song, or ornamental value, as a pet, or as an ingredient in perfume or medicine. Every year China, the U.S., Europe, and Japan purchase billions of dollars' worth of wildlife from biologically rich parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, emptying out parks and plundering wildlands, o en newly accessible along logging roads. e path to market typically begins when poor hunters or farmers catch animals for local trad- ers, who pass them up the supply chain, though some tra ckers---Anson Wong among them--- have even dispatched their own poachers, pos- ing as tourists. In Asia, wildlife ends up on the banquet table or in medicine shops; in Western countries, in the living rooms of exotic-animal fanciers. e economics are as easy to understand as an art auction: the rarer the item, the higher the price. Around the globe, nature is dying, and the prices of her rarest works are going up. While no one knows exactly how large the illegal wildlife trade is, this much is certain: It's extraordinarily lucrative. Pro t margins are the kind drug kingpins would kill for. Smugglers evade detection by hiding illegal wildlife in legal shipments, they bribe wildlife and customs o cials, and they alter trade documents. Few are ever caught, and penalties are usually no more severe than a parking ticket. Wildlife traf- cking may very well be the world's most pro t- able form of illegal trade, bar none. Smugglers also exploit a loophole in the Convention on International Trade in Endan- gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( ). With 175 countries as members, is the world's primary treaty to protect wildlife, catego- rized into three groups according to how endan- gered a species is perceived to be. Appendix I animals, such as tigers and orangutans, are con- sidered so close to extinction that their commer- cial trade is banned. Species in Appendix II are less vulnerable and may be traded under a per- mit system. ose in Appendix III are protected by the national legislation of the country that added them to the list. e treaty has one gaping exception: Specimens bred in captivity do not receive the same protection as their wild counterparts. , a er all, applies to wild life. Proponents of captive breeding argue that it takes pressure o wild populations, decreases crime, satis es international demand that will never go away, and puts money in the pockets of those willing to commit to "farming" wildlife. But these bene ts only hold in countries with enforcement policies strong enough to deter rule breakers. In practice, smugglers establish fake breeding facilities, then claim that animals and plants poached from the wild are captive bred. Fake captive breeding is just one of the tech- niques Anson Wong used in running a secret front operation for one of the world's largest wildlife-smuggling syndicates. Now the world's most notorious convicted reptile tra cker is about to move in a new direc- tion, with potentially shattering consequences for one of the most revered, charismatic---and endangered---animals on the planet: the tiger. OPERATION CHAMELEON Special Operations began its hunt for Anson Wong in the fall of 1993. Ops prided itself on tackling large-scale commercial tra ckers. e group's work on exotic-bird tra cking had re- sulted in the breakup of smuggling operations Bryan Christy's reporting for this story grew out of work for his book, e Lizard King. Mark Leong, a frequent contributor, is based in Beijing.