Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The crime of smuggling wildlife

WHEN word got around on Aug 26 that notorious international wildlife trafficker Anson Wong (Wong Keng Liang) had been detained by police at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for trying to smuggle out 95 boa constrictors, two rhinoceros vipers and a Mata Mata turtle, the whole anti-wildlife-trade world was stunned.

Twelve years ago, it had taken the United States Fish and Wildlife Service half-a-decade's undercover investigation to capture this man known as the "Pablo Escobar of wildlife trade". So, the sheer ease of catching Wong red-handed in his home country can only be attributed to luck.

Wong had got on a plane in Penang and was in transit in KLIA on the way to Jakarta. Unfortunately for him, he had not used a sturdy enough bag to transport his exotic cargo. The bag broke, drawing airport security's attention to the writhing reptiles within. As he was on his way out of the country, this brought up the crime of the exportation of scheduled protected wildlife without a permit. Wong could have been punished with a RM100,000 fine for each reptile up to a maximum of RM1 million, or up to seven years' jail, or both. When charged, he pleaded guilty. Astonishingly, he got a measly six months' jail and a RM190,000 fine. His handphone and laptop have been retained by the authorities for further investigation, and hopefully, these will yield a good harvest.

Catching "Asia's wildlife kingpin" certainly accounts for something, but it does not mark the end of the fight against illegal wildlife trade. Destroying this industry is like trying to kill a many-headed Hydra, for no void would have been left unfilled from Wong's detention. Yet this does not mean there is no need to marshal a herculean effort. But, for mere mortals, that attribute shall have to come from design rather than birth.

Laws that are enacted need to be enforced intelligently, conscientiously and with integrity. Personnel, equipment and budgets need to be sufficient to support enforcement against what has become a lucrative trade. The personnel need to be highly trained to know what to look for and to recognise it when they see it. Investigators need to know how to snoop around and gather evidence necessary for arrest and conviction. They need to be fleet-footed and grab the opportunities presented to them. Prosecutors need to go after offenders professionally and appreciate the severity of the crime when fighting for a deterrent sentence. Judges, too, need to appreciate that just because it involves wildlife, it doesn't make it any less grave. New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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