The Lizard King: Illegal Wildlife Trade’s Poster Boy

An undercover investigation into the man at the heart of illegal wildlife trading. Is the Lizard King back in business?

The illegal trade in wildlife is thought to be worth at least $19bn a year, a sum rivalled only by the black markets in drugs, counterfeit goods and people.

But while drugs and people smuggling are seen as profitable but extremely risky, the wildlife trade has become increasingly attractive to criminal networks because it is not only lucrative but the risks are far lower.

At the time of filming, there were 400 ploughshare tortoises left in the wild. Our understanding is that now that number is down to 50 and the species is on the brink of extinction.

by Steve Chao, 101 East

The animals caught up in the trade – assuming they even survive the journey – often end up as pets, traditional medicines or food; some openly so, such as the world’s most trafficked animal, the pangolin, a highly sought-after delicacy in some parts of China.

The US Department of State says trafficking not only undermines conservation, it also threatens the rule of law and is a risk to global health. The concern is now so great that the trade has been designated a new form of transnational crime. Undercover operations to uncover illegal wildlife trading rings and masterminds spanned years at a time and continents of distance.

One such renown name within the illegal wildlife trade and someone who has been ensnared by the long arm of the law is Anson Wong. 

For more than two decades, Anson Wong was the internationally recognised “face” of the illegal trade in endangered wildlife. The Malaysian’s notoriety stemmed from 1998 when he was arrested by US agents after they lured him to Mexico, part of a five-year investigation named “Operation Chameleon” that became a best-selling book, The Lizard King.

Although Wong was later convicted for smuggling endangered species and sentenced to 71 months in prison, reports surfaced of his return to the illegal wildlife trade upon his release in 2012. 

In 2013, 101 East‘s Steve Chao travelled from Madagascar to Thailand to Indonesia and Malaysia in an attempt to follow the trafficking trail and to infiltrate Wong’s syndicate. 

Five years on, he tells REWIND that Malaysia remains a connecting hub for those in trade, as a link to other poaching hotspots worldwide. Chao maintains that the global wildlife trafficking situation is as bad as it was when he launched his investigation five years ago – and in some instances, even worse.