On September 14, 1998, a thin, bespectacled Malaysian named Wong Keng Liang walked off Japan Airlines Flight 12 at Mexico City International Airport. He was dressed in faded blue jeans, a light-blue jacket, and a T-shirt emblazoned with a white iguana head. George Morrison, lead agent for Special Operations, the elite, five-person undercover unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was there to greet him. Within seconds of his arrest, Anson (the name by which Wong is known to wildlife traffickers and wildlife law enforcement officers around the world) was whisked downstairs in handcuffs by Mexican federales, to be held in the country's largest prison, the infamous Reclusorio Norte.
For nearly two years Anson fought extradition to the U.S., but eventually he signed plea agreements, admitting to crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 250 years in prison and a $12.5-million fine. On June 7, 2001, U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins sentenced him to 71 months in U.S. federal prison (with credit for 34 months served), fined him $60,000, and banned him from selling animals to anyone in the U.S. for three years after his prison release.
If the judge thought a ban on Anson Wong would work, he was mistaken. Shortly after 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.
Situated in the trendy Pulau Tikus ("rat island") section of Penang, Sungai Rusa Wildlife might easily be mistaken for a hair salon. No wider than a family garage and unidentified, it's one of dozens of units along a quiet strip of retail shops offering tummy reduction, skin care, and spa treatments.
One day in late December 2007, Anson's black Mercedes-Benz pulled into Penang International Airport and picked up two of Malaysia's top wildlife enforcement officials, Perhilitan's law enforcement division director, Sivananthan Elagupillay, and his boss, Deputy Director General Misliah Mohamad Basir. The officers had flown in from Kuala Lumpur for a press conference launching Flora and Fauna Village, now a joint venture between Penang's forestry department and Anson Wong and Michael Ooi's enterprise.
Anson had long boasted his government influence. Now he had the open support of both the Penang government and Malaysia's wildlife department. Misliah's presence was ironic. During Operation Chameleon Misliah had been the wildlife official in charge on Penang. She signed his CITES permits. Within four years of Anson's arrest, she was promoted to director of Perhilitan's law enforcement division, and by 2007 she'd been given the department's number two job.
I wondered what Misliah thought of the man who had smuggled so much endangered wildlife right under her nose.
"He is my good friend," Misliah giggled, sitting behind her desk in her spacious office at Perhilitan headquarters. She was a plump little woman, hardly more than a round head wrapped in a Muslim's white tudung scarf. She was swaddled in a sky blue shawl over a baju kurung, a long blouse and sarong, and wore petite brown sandals. Her voice was honestly the sweetest I'd ever heard.
Malaysia's second highest wildlife law enforcement officer speaks of her country's most notorious illegal trafficker like a doting aunt.
"People say, 'How can you give him his license?' " A smile wreathed Misliah's face. "He was a very bad boy, but if we don't give him a license, he would just do it anyway." This way, she said, they could keep their eye on him.
To this day Misliah vouches for Anson. "Anson Wong has carried out his business legally and complying [sic] the needs and requirements under the domestic law. He and his business in peninsular Malaysia have been monitored closely by this department," her office asserted in a written statement to the press in 2008.
She was also in favor of legalized tiger and bear-bile farming. "Why not?" she asked me.
Misliah Mohamad Basir, so inconspicuous, seemingly so benign, is one of the most powerful wildlife decision-makers on the planet. On her watch Malaysia has become a global trafficking hub.
Last August Misliah responded to allegations of a corrupt relationship between her department and Anson Wong: "As far as Malaysia is concerned, he abides by local laws and has the necessary licenses," she said. "What he does outside the country is not our concern."
After that article was published, a follow-up in Foreign Policy:
Things didn't begin to change until January 2010, when National Geographic published a profile I wrote of Wong, detailing his government connection and his new plans to exploit tigers. The outcry by both the public and journalists in the Malaysian press was immediate. (Malaysian newspapers and television are state controlled, which makes it difficult for journalists to criticize the government directly -- but they are free to disclose foreign reporting about Malaysia, such as my story.) In the course of the past year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced a revamp of its wildlife department, promising to rotate senior officers every three years. It stripped the department of key powers and is in the process of transferring Misliah, who is now also under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. While international wildlife NGOs were cautious about causing trouble in Malaysia, they have provided invaluable advice to the country's government, including the parliament, which passed the first overhaul of its wildlife law in nearly four decades this summer.
As a result, when Wong was caught with a suitcase of boa constrictors, he didn't get away with it. The Malaysian government revoked his business licenses, shut down his zoo, and seized his entire collection of animals, including his Bengal tigers. In November, a judge sentenced him to five years in prison, an unprecedented term for a wildlife trafficker in Malaysia, and a stern sentence for animal smuggling compared to current standards anywhere else in the world.
Interestingly, Pulau Tikus was translated as ‘Rat Island’ I suppose to make the imagery complete although the Malay language doesn’t really distinguish between rat and mouse. I used to think of it as mouse. Some pictures of Pulau Tikus at above link. There’s a great Hokkien Mee place there - my mother and her friends refer to this place as the ‘soup miser’.