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Come down hard on illegal Wildlife Traders

SOMETIME in July, the headlines in the papers read "Enforcement to go after big fish". This statement by Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, was made as he was concerned that the country’s enforcement agencies were only going after the small fish in criminal networks, and that the government is not using its limited enforcement resources effectively.

A few weeks later, the government did land a big fish. And he is as big as they come in the wildlife trade world. Anson Wong, which many have mistakenly dubbed "The Lizard King" after the book by Bryan Christy (the book refers to another dealer in the US, not Wong), was arrested at KL International Airport in August after an alert Malaysia Airlines security officer spotted a bag with a broken lock on the carousel for a Jakarta-bound flight. Inside the bag were nearly 100 South American reptiles, and Wong was caught without the necessary export permits.

He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined RM190,000. Keep in mind that Wong is regarded globally as "The Don" of the illegal wildlife trade. Suffice to say, no one was satisfied with the judgment and the Attorney-General’s Chambers has filed an appeal for a higher penalty. And indeed it should.

Apart from breaching the International Trade in Endangered Species Act, Wong has broken a slew of national laws. Under the Customs Act 1967, Section 135 states that anyone "exporting or importing any uncustomed or prohibited goods" can be found guilty of an offence (dependent on which class of goods it falls under). The penalty ranges from a fine of not less than 10 times the amount of customs duty or/and the maximum of five years imprisonment. If it is found that Wong had bribed an officer to enable his bag to be checked-in, Section 10 of the Anti-Corruption Act 1997 comes into play with the maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment and/or a fine not less five times the amount of the bribe or RM10,000, whichever is higher.

Wong also breached the Animals Act 1953 where Section 14 states that no person is allowed to export any animal without a licence, and carries a penalty of RM500 and/or six months imprisonment. The IATA (International Air Transport Association) Live Animals Regulations, which was drafted to ensure all animals are transported safely and humanely by air, was disregarded by Wong as he did not have the necessary certificates, permits and proper containers. IATA container requirements for animals are based on species needs and animal size. Wong also contravened Malaysia Airlines Conditions of Carriage, especially Article 8.1.14 for putting passengers of the aircraft in danger, and Articles 9.1.1 (a) and (e) where the airline prohibits the inclusion of items which are likely to endanger persons on board and the carrying of live animals unless they are packed within IATA rules, respectively.

When I attended the sessions court to hear the case, the faces around me expressed scepticism when Wong, in his mitigation plea, said that he was in a haste to meet a customer’s demand, hence the attempt to carry the reptiles without the necessary permits. For someone as knowledgeable and experienced in the wildlife trade, Wong should have known better unless he was confident that he would not get caught.

I hope the presiding judge in the appeal case will impose a suitable penalty to reflect the seriousness of the government in punishing someone who has broken at least three national laws and for making a mockery of the government’s efforts to improve its image in wildlife management.

Azrina Abdullah is conducting research on the links between
indigenous groups and wildlife trade. She was regional director of
Traffic, an NGO which monitors the global wildlife trade.

Updated: 11:33PM Sun, 12 Sep 2010




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