International Trafficker in World's Rarest Reptiles Jailed

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 8, 2001 (ENS) - An international wildlife smuggler has been sentenced in federal court in San Francisco to 71 months in prison and a fine of $60,000.

Keng Liang "Anson" Wong pleaded guilty late yesterday to 40 felony charges of trafficking in some of the most endangered reptile species in the world. In addition to Wong, seven other defendants have been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal crimes associated with the smuggling ring.

Between 1996 and 1998, Wong spearheaded an international smuggling ring that illegally imported and sold more than 300 protected reptiles native to Asia and Africa. Several of the species involved in the illegal trade are on the brink of extinction.

An undercover federal investigation infiltrated this reptile trade. Agents found that Wong illegally imported the reptiles by concealing them in express delivery packages, airline baggage, and large commercial shipments of legally declared animals.


Komodo Dragon in Komodo National Park, Indonesia (Photo courtesy Komodo National Park Foundation)
The endangered species traded by Wong include the world's largest lizard, the Komodo Monitor, also called the Komodo Dragon, which is now found only on the three small Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca and Flores. Only an estimated 5,700 of the giant lizards remain.

Wong also bought and sold the plowshare tortoise, also called the Madagascan spurred tortoise, believed to be the rarest tortoise species. It is found only on the island of Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa.

The Komodo dragon and the plowshare tortoise can each bring up to about $30,000 apiece on the black market.

Wong also trafficked in such rare species as the Chinese alligator which lives in the lower course of the Yangtze River; the false gavial, a crocodile whose range is restricted to parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and southern Thailand; and the radiated tortoise, another species found only on Madagascar.

Black market prices for these endangered reptiles range from $5,000 to $15,000 apiece.

Other species smuggled by Wong included the Gray's monitor, spider tortoise, Burmese star tortoise, Indian star tortoise, Boelen's python, Timor python, green tree python, and Fly River turtle.

When he was caught, Wong spent nearly two years in a Mexican prison fighting extradition to the United States. The charges to which he eventually pleaded guilty include money laundering, conspiracy, smuggling, making false statements, and violating the Lacey Act, the federal law that prohibits trade in animals that are protected under federal, state, or international law.

At the time Wong was involved in these transactions, he was already wanted in the United States for similar crimes. In 1992, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted him for conspiring to smuggle endangered reptiles into the country for sale to a Florida dealer.

"Reptile trafficking is a high profit criminal enterprise, and the United States is one of its largest markets," said acting service director Marshall Jones. "This trade robs countries of their natural heritage and takes a toll that cannot be measured in dollars."


Plowshare tortoise, also called the Malagasy angulated tortoise, Madagascar angulated tortoise, and Angonoka radiated tortoise (Photo courtesy Honolulu Zoo)
In July 1998, a federal grand jury in San Francisco returned a sealed indictment against Wong and three of his associates, based on evidence showing that the Malaysian businessman, who owned and operated Sungai Rusa Wildlife in Penang, sent 14 illegal shipments to the United States containing protected reptiles worth more than a half million dollars on the black market.

In September 1998, Wong was arrested by Mexican officials on these U.S. charges, after he arrived at the Mexico City airport to meet with an undercover agent who was posing as an American reptile dealer.

Imprisoned in Mexico, Wong fought extradition to the United States until June 2000, when he filed papers in the Mexican courts abandoning his efforts to avoid prosecution. On August 29, 2000, he was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals and flown to San Francisco to face trial. On December 13, 2000, Wong pleaded guilty to 40 federal felony crimes alleged in the San Francisco and Florida cases.

Other members of the smuggling ring are:

James Michael Burroughs, of San Francisco, pleaded guilty in 1999 to conspiracy and two felony smuggling charges in connection with his role as a human courier of smuggled animals in airline baggage. He awaits sentencing.


Aru Island Green Tree Python (Photo courtesy Herpafauna Indonesia)
Arizona reptile dealer Jeffery Charles Miller pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy and four smuggling violations in connection with his role in receiving FedEx shipments of animals from Wong and selling them to buyers in the United States. Miller will be sentenced later this summer.

Arizona reptile dealer Beau Lee Lewis was convicted by a federal jury in March of 16 federal felonies, including conspiracy, money laundering, smuggling and wildlife offenses, in connection with his receipt of six smuggled FedEx shipments of animals from Wong in 1997 and 1998.

Former FedEx employee Robert Paluch, tried along with Lewis, was convicted of four federal felonies, including conspiracy, smuggling and wildlife crimes, for his role in facilitating, with Lewis, the importation of FedEx shipments from Wong which contained smuggled animals. Lewis and Paluch will be sentenced on August 2.

Arizona residents Brian Luebking and Nancy Mott also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor federal crimes in connection with their facilitation of the scheme and have been sentenced in the District of Arizona: both received fines and probation.

California reptile fancier Mark Biancaniello pleaded guilty to a federal felony wildlife offense for receiving smuggled animals from Wong. Biancaniello will be sentenced in San Francisco later this summer.


Boelen's python (Photo courtesy Herpafauna Indonesia)
A ninth person, indicted with Wong and his U.S. associates, Yuk Wah "Oscar" Shiu, a Hong Kong resident who runs a wildlife import/export business in that city, is a fugitive.

The maximum penalty for money laundering is 20 years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine. The remaining charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Trade in the animals smuggled and sold by Wong is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement that controls the importation and exportation of hundreds of imperiled animals and plants.

A number of the animals he smuggled are also are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the importation of rare animals into the United States for commercial purposes.

The undercover federal probe of Wong and his business associates was conducted by special agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Branch of Special Operations, an enforcement unit specializing in covert investigations of illegal wildlife trade, with assistance from the U.S. Customs Service, the Mexican Attorney General's Office, INTERPOL, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada.

The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

"Bringing Anson Wong to justice demonstrates the Department's resolve to stop trafficking in endangered species," said John Cruden, acting assistant attorney general for the Environment Division at the Justice Department. "We will take whatever steps we can here and abroad to shut down the black market in reptiles and other protected animals."