‘The Lizard King’ author speaks up
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 14:56
The snakes were protected species under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008.
In allowing Wong’s appeal, the court had said the 17 months and 15 days he had served from Sept 7, 2010 — out of the five-year jail sentence imposed by the Shah Alam High Court — would serve the interests of justice.
Wong’s release was criticised by non-governmental organisations, with many claiming his early release was a blow to Malaysia’s standing.
The Malay Mail spoke to Philadelphia-based Bryan Christy, the author of widely-acclaimed book The Lizard King — The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers, to get his take on Wong’s release.
In The Lizard King, Christ y dubbed Wong “the Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking”, who used cheap reptiles as a front to traffic the world’s most precious animals, including rhinos, pandas and snow leopards.
He tells The Malay Mail’s journalist IKRAM ISMAIL that while Wong’s case demonstrates prosecutors and judges were willing to take on major traffickers, the real responsibility lies with Malaysians to demand better wildlife law enforcement.
The Malay Mail (MM): What was your reaction to Anson Wong’s release?
Bryan Christy (BC): My first thought was, it’s no surprise. Five years is a long sentence for smuggling boa constrictors and nobody expected Wong to stay in prison the full term.
MM: Do you think his release will have any impact on the illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia?
BC: It remains to be seen what impact Wong’s release will have. The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry announced over a year ago it was stripping Wong and his companies of their operating licenses and seizing his wildlife.
Will the government continue to ban him from the wildlife trade? Or, will it look the other way and enable him to return to the trade?
MM: Do you think wildlife protection laws in Malaysia are too lenient?
BC: Malaysia put through some good laws in 2010, including the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. It is not a question of laws. Wong’s prosecution demonstrates prosecutors are willing to take on major traffickers and judges are willing to hear those cases, so, it is not a question of courts, either.
The real question for Malaysia is investigation and enforcement. For example, the day Wong was arrested, agents seized his cell phones and laptop.
These were potentially major intelligence opportunities for investigators to turn into one of the most successful moments in law enforcement history.
Wildlife departments around the world asked Perhilitan (Wildlife and National Parks Department) to pursue those leads and some even offered to help, but so far, no effort was made to do that. In any case, no additional arrests were made in Malaysia.
MM: What steps should be taken by the Malaysian government to beef up enforcement activities?
BC: Malaysian citizens should insist their government pursue wildlife trafficking kingpins. Not couriers but kingpins.
Malaysia is widely considered to be a global wildlife trafficking hub because of a lack of enforcement. It’s that simple.
In the past year, the Royal Malaysian Customs has made some major stops in wildlife trafficking. That is a positive development and is in contrast to Perhilitan’s efforts. But so far, no kingpins have been arrested.
In my experience, the single most important thing a government can do to stop wildlife trafficking is to create an environmental court, a so-called green court. A dedicated environmental court enables prosecutors and judges to undertake environmental cases and when they prioritise environmental cases, investigators do too, and penalties begin to deter criminals.
MM: Do you have any plans to pursue this matter, perhaps write another book?
BC: I will always be interested in this topic but to be honest, it is a Malaysian story now. My writing on Wong brought international attention to a problem and Malaysians responded immediately with calls for reform.
Malaysian citizens, media, NGOs, MPs and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry had all agreed reform was needed and the ministry announced sweeping reforms in 2010. But I am afraid few of those reforms were actually implemented and public interest seems to have faded.
Malaysia is geographically the perfect smuggler’s location. Unfortunately, that means Malaysia’s law enforcement needs to be more vigilant than many other countries. The real responsibility is with Malaysians to demand better wildlife law enforcement and real results.
MM: Do you think anyone should be blamed for Wong’s early release?
BC: No one should be blamed for Wong’s release. The question is: Which department is responsible for catching wildlife traffickers in Malaysia and has it done its job?