Constricted by boas – the fall of Anson Wong?

Posted on September 9, 2010. Filed under: Bio-diversity, Laws and Regulations |

-Free Malaysia Today- By Hilary Chiew “I don’t want to go to jail again.” — Those were the words uttered by Anson Wong slightly over a year ago to me. I was confident that he said that with full knowledge that he is untouchable in Southeast Asia – one of the regions which had become a safe playground for the flamboyant wildlife trafficker.

There is an undoubted air of cockiness in Wong. His underlying message was: Catch me if you can!

From his Toshiba laptop, he nonchalantly showed photographs of him holding a Malagasy ploughshare tortoise purportedly in a market in the neighbouring Zanzibar island off Tanzania. He claimed that he was on holiday there, and declared that he has remained clean since returning from the United States sometime in 2004.

Now, what are the chances of a person who has been convicted of running a wildlife smuggling ring that specialises in rare reptiles like the endangered ploughshare tortoise taking a holiday in Zanzibar and stumbling upon the very same species far away from its native habitat?

The ploughshare – Astrochelys yniphora or Angonoka in Malagasy – is the largest of Madagascar’s tortoises with adults reaching about 450cm in length. It is thought to number less than 500 adults in the wild and the entire wild population is found within the Baly Bay National Park, leading it to be classified as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Baly Bay is an extremely poor region and traffickers pay local people to find the animals. However, the real problem lies with the buyers and the collectors who encourage the illegal trade in endangered animals with no thought for the conservation of the species.

The ploughshare is a much coveted collectors’ item so much so that the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust captive breeding facility in Madagascar has now and then been hit by several thefts of the reptile.

In that interview with Wong, he “shared” an interesting inside story – that the nouveau riche of Chinese were eating the ploughshare. He finds it disgusting that the rare creature should end up in the cooking pot. He also revealed that he saw these tortoises in Bangkok, a place that he frequently visited.

He offered to provide inside information of the trade if I was interested to investigate.

Stroke of bad luck, for Wong

Then, a fortnight ago, by a stroke of sheer luck (good or bad, depending on which side you are on), his luggage broke on the conveyor belt as he was transiting KLIA for Jakarta to personally deliver the consignment to his client, who, according to him, would like to receive the consignment before Hari Raya.

In the bag were 95 Boa constrictors, two Rhinoceros vipers and a mata-mata turtle.

For that, he was jailed six months and fined RM190,000 (RM2,000 for each snake) under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2007 (also known as the Cites Act) that provide for a maximum fine of RM1 million and a jail term of up to seven years.

The sentence has now come under heavy criticisms notwithstanding the fact that Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Douglas Uggah Embas has promised to appeal against the lenient treatment.

If I were the judge, I would ask Wong how much is the client paying for a snake and then I would decide how much I would fine him. Of course, the judge would be constricted, pun intended, by the RM1 million ceiling according to the Cites Act.

Do the maths and you will arrive at the figure of RM10,526.30 per snake if Wong was handed the maximum fine instead of the RM2,000 that he had been ordered to pay for each snake. The maximum fine may be more than the market value but the issue here is about deterrent and not a fair fine dictated by market price.

The price offered by the Jakarta buyer must be very tempting for Wong to run the risk in person. Wong is known to use human couriers in this lucrative transnational business. Those poor couriers are mere collateral damage that he could easily pay off to spend a year or two in prison.

Questions abound as to how Wong managed to clear the security check with his bag full of snakes at the Penang International Airport. Why didn’t he obtain an export permit if indeed he had brought in the snake legally in the first place?

Have all the 95 snakes been carefully identified to be Boa constrictor constrictor and Boa constrictor imperator which are Appendix II species under Cites where regulated trade is allowed and not Boa constrictor occidentalis that is an Appendix I species where trade is prohibited?

Protected smuggler

Rumour has it that Wong’s client in Jakarta is a businessman with similar connection like him over here in Malaysia. Rumour also has it that the two Malagasy women with the inglorious distinction of being the first two persons to be charged under the newly-minted “Cites” Act and are now serving their one-year jail term, were also delivering to the same buyer.

Allegations of Wong’s “protected” status by a certain high-ranking officer in the Department of Wildlife and National Park (Perhilitan), the government agency that oversee wild fauna matters ranging from management to trade, is no longer news.

Animal rights groups had lodged reports urging the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the alleged claims highlighted by the media and the detailed accounts by lawyer-turned investigative journalist Bryan Christy in his book The Lizard King and an article in the January issue of the National Geography titled The Kingpin.

But the reports had so far been ignored.

The ministry also set up a task force to probe the conduct of the said officer and alleged abuse of special permits issued to Wong, but it ended with a lame decision to leave the matter in the hands of the very officer who claimed that she was looking into instituting legal actions against the author and publisher of National Geographic.

The authorities had generally downplayed the issue despite the pressure they had been getting from wildlife activists.

From my personal experience previously as a journalist highlighting numerous cases of mismanagement by Perhilitan, it is obvious that the ministry lacks competent personnel to analyse and probe mismanagement allegations nor has it any political will and determination to resolve the many outstanding issues.

Although the ministry is the final decision-making body on vital issues on wildlife, it is overly reliant on Perhilitan for technical advice.

The public relation arm of the ministry is only good at responding to public outcry by issuing standard PR statement that the government takes illegal wildlife trade seriously and highlighting some recent so-called success cases of enforcement.

So don’t hold your breath that there would be a serious probe into Wong’s network unless unrelenting public pressure is mounted against the ministry to deliver on its promise of “getting to the bottom” of the issue.

In fact, the speedy manner in which the case has been processed suggest that this would yet be another X file in the many enforcement cases where we the public will never get to know the extent of the investigation and the final findings.

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