The illegal trade in wildlife is thought to be worth at least $19bn a year, a sum rivalled only by the black markets in drugs, counterfeit goods and people.
But while drugs and people smuggling are seen as profitable but extremely risky, the wildlife trade has become increasingly attractive to criminal networks because it is not only lucrative but the risks are far lower. The animals caught up in the trade - assuming they even survive the journey - often end up as pets, traditional medicines or food.
The US State Department says trafficking not only undermines conservation, it also threatens the rule of law and is a risk to global health. The concern is now so great that the trade has been designated a new form of transnational crime.
For more than two decades, Anson Wong has been the internationally recognised "face" of the trade; the 'Pablo Escobar' of animal trafficking, according to some. The Malaysian's notoriety stems from 1998 when he was arrested by US agents after they lured him to Mexico in a highly elaborate five-year investigation that became a best-selling book, The Lizard King . He was later convicted for smuggling endangered species and sentenced to 71 months in prison.
When Wong returned to Malaysia, his permits reportedly revoked, and many suspected he had returned to the business. In 2010, those fears were confirmed when Wong's bag broke open while he was in transit to Jakarta to reveal 95 boa constrictors.
Initially sentenced to five years in jail, his term was cut to 17 months on appeal and Wong was released in February 2012, despite evidence of his involvement in other smuggling cases.
Once again, he is back home in Penang, Malaysia. And once again, the Malaysian authorities say his permits have been revoked. Since getting out of prison, new reports have surfaced of his return to the illegal wildlife trade.
101 East goes undercover from Madagascar, to Thailand, to Indonesia and to Malaysia in an attempt to follow the trafficking trail and to infiltrate Wong's syndicate.
Our journey starts in Madagascar with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, an animal protection group that has spent decades trying to save the very endangered tortoises that Anson Wong has poached. There are only 400 adult Ploughshare tortoises left in the wild. And the fear among Durrell's workers is that they will soon fall prey to traffickers. The organisation's top representative in the country, Richard Lewis, says Wong to them is enemy no. 1, and all employees are warned to be on the lookout for him.
In Madagascar, we speak to Sarah Sahondrarisoa, a Malagasy woman who in 2010 was convicted of trying to smuggle endangered Ploughshares from Madagascar to Malaysia for Anson Wong. While she served eight months in jail, Wong has never been tried for his alleged involvement.
A man who worked for years with Wong, who we call "X", helps us see into the mind of the Lizard King and shares what motivates him. He also explains the routes taken by the Lizard King and his associates to smuggle valuable species from his favoured spots in species-rich Madagascar to Malaysia. He too confirms that Wong is still in business.
In Madagascar's capital of Antananarivo, we also come across Mario, the son of a presidential candidate, and an exporter of seafood and reptiles. He admits to having helped Anson Wong several years ago with a few shipments. Believing 101 East presenter Steve Chao is a reptile dealer, he offers to introduce Chao to one of his contacts. That contact produces samples - numbers of Radiated tortoises (the second most endangered in Madagascar) and promises that with the help of customs officials on-the-take, he will be able to ship hundreds at a time to a destination of Chao's choosing.
The ease of buying endangered species underlines how despite 40 years of efforts by the international community to combat wildlife trafficking, poachers and smugglers continue to get away with their crimes, aided in large part by officials in various countries.
In Indonesia, Daniel Tanuwidjaja, one of Wong's trusted distributors, claims he pays off wildlife and customs officials in both Indonesia and Malaysia to allow for shipments from Wong. He also says that the Lizard King continues to deal, and that Wong's wife is increasingly involved in the business.
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