It's time to get tough with the kingpins of wildlife crime

Ivory trader to EIA: “There are only two to three big bosses. Beneath them there are smaller bosses. The big bosses won’t go out and sell the stuff themselves … generally, the ‘big bosses’ don’t show their faces”.

“The media tend to focus on wildlife crimes they can see,” says Bryan Christy, journalist and author. “Journalists, NGOs and governments need to tell the stories of the villains more.”

Christy, who earlier this year addressed INTERPOL’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, wants to see a shift in the way environmental crime is talked about and tackled: shift the focus onto the villains.


Villain-focused enforcement

Denis Grey’s recent article on SouthEast Asia’s ‘Mr Bigs’ of the wildlife trade describes the scenario: the ‘smaller guys’ at the bottom might get caught, but the higher up you get, it’s money and connections which help to secure immunity.

Then there are the myriad barriers the good cops come up against.


The C-Word

Says Christy: “There is no way for a commercial-scale trafficker to become a true kingpin without government complicity.”

On the trail of notorious wildlife trafficker Anson Wong, Christy met with a high ranking wildlife law enforcement officer, who unhesitatingly described Wong as her “good friend”.


(c) Orin Zebest

Captive Trade

Wong spoke of zoos being the “future”. Zoos have long presented an easy laundering front – another way big bosses keep it hidden.

Take so-called pangolin farming. Pangolins generally have a low reproductive rate; captive pangolins have a high mortality rate.

Vietnamese NGO Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) states: “Businessmen who invest in the ‘farming of pangolins’ are either poor businessmen destined to lose their investment, or more likely are criminals masquerading their farms as legitimate enterprises, but in truth, laundering pangolins through their farms.”

Most important, say ENV, is for enforcement agencies to be “ruthless in the pursuit of criminals behind the trade network, with investigations leading to prosecution.”


Pangolin Emergency

Taking what is publicly reported, 10 years worth of interceptions of pangolin consignments suggests the trade of at least 25,000 individuals. As one commentator recently put it, “now there’s an animal that’s going to go extinct.”


Put the ‘villain’ into that

So why am I talking about focusing on kingpins when I’m also talking about a particular species?

Story on ‘Lizard King’ Anson Wong in The Star, Malaysia

According to Christy, a kingpin is the “head decision-maker of a network that smuggles protected species across national borders consistently on a commercial scale.”

The staggering scale of the transnational pangolin trade and the level of organisation that’s involved suggests little less. Someone is making a lot of money from pangolins – but so far they’re faceless.

One of the mistakes made about Wong was that he was ‘only’ a reptile smuggler. Intervention on specific illegally traded species is needed, yet all wildlife crime investigations should be people-focused: meaning, not being satisfied with recovering the goods, and focused towards gathering prosecution-driven evidence. This can include a host of related offences, such as money laundering.

US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Operations made Anson Wong the target of Operation Chameleon, an undercover operation involving agencies in four countries. The Operation, which culminated in his 1998 arrest, was hailed as a success.

Yet units need to be sustainably invested and resourced in order to undertake this kind of effective work, as well as being given the mandate and internal support to do so.

The problem with going after the big bosses is what’s uncovered in the process. Countries enforcing against the illegal trade is good. Identifying, investigating and naming the big bosses is great. Prosecuting and convicting them is serious action.


Charlotte Davies
Intelligence Analyst






Some further reading:

• Bryan Christy, The Kingpin: An exposé of the world’s most notorious wildlife dealer, his special government friend, and his ambitious new plan, January 2010.

• Bryan Christy, The Serpent King: How a notorious Malaysian wildlife smuggler was brought to justice – and what it tells us about stopping the world’s most profitable black market, December 28, 2010

• Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), Wildlife Crime Bulletin, August 2012

Project Pangolin