Al Jazeera¹s 101 East reveals Madagascar’s illegal wildlife trade

A Spiny-Tailed Iguana in the wild in Madagascar.  90% of all species of animals here are found only on the island. Picture By Steve Chao

A Spiny-Tailed Iguana in the wild in Madagascar. 90% of all species of animals here are found only on the island. Picture By Steve Chao

Anson Wong is one of the world’s most infamous wildlife traffickers, convicted twice of smuggling exotic wildlife across international borders.

Working with anti-trafficking groups, 101 East goes undercover to expose Wong’s Malaysian and Madagascan-based operations – and the officials who allow it.

Speaking about Wong, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust said, “He’s almost public enemy number one for us in terms of his reputation.”

For more than two decades, Wong has been the internationally recognised ‘face’ of the trade. 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.

In 2010, Wong was caught trying to transit to Jakarta with 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.

Recently, new reports have surfaced of Wong’s return to the illegal wildlife trade.

101 East’s Steve Chao goes undercover in Madagascar’s capital of Antananarivo and meets with Mario Voninahitsy, son of the presidential candidate and well-known politician Jean-Eugene Voninahitsy.

Mario Voninahitsy’s associate shows Chao samples of endangered tortoises, promising 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.

“In our meetings with Mario, he told us that he had helped Wong with a shipment of tortoises and had introduced ‘colleagues’ to help him,” says Chao. “We learned, through Mario and various smugglers, that Madagascar is one of Africa’s crucial ‘source’ countries for wildlife – partly for its biodiversity and partly for the fact that customs and wildlife officials are allegedly aiding traffickers.”

The highly endangered Ploughshare and Radiated tortoises are the animals of choice for Wong and others. “Smugglers tell us that animals taken out of Madagascar will often be brought together with shipments of elephant ivory and rhino horns in countries like Tanzania, Mauritius, and Comoros, and then shipped together overseas to Asia, where they will be sold on in the underground trafficking pipeline.”

Chao also spoke to one of the Malagasy ‘mules,’ Sarah Sahondrarisoa, who was used by Wong for his shipments.  She was jailed for eight months after being caught in Malaysia while smuggling more than 300 Radiated tortoises and a number of Ploughshare.

While she has shared information with authorities that could indict Wong, along with many of his Malagasy associates, no action has been taken against them to this day.

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 says that the Lizard King continues to deal, and that Wong’s wife is increasingly involved in the business.

Chao travels to Wong’s hometown of Penang, Malaysia, where he follows a paper trail of public records to various properties owned by the Lizard King, his family and associates.

There he uncovers shell companies used to hide the illicit trade in reptiles, and also stumbles on a number of exotic wildlife buyers. After a year-long investigation, Chao finally tracks down the Lizard King.  And in a final confrontation, he presents to him the evidence 101 East has gathered.

Al Jazeera’s 101 East – Return of The Lizard King premieres Thursday 21 November at 22.00GMT, with the first repeat Friday 22 November at 09.30 GMT.

Watch and embed the two-minute teaser by clicking here.