While no one knows exactly how large the illegal wildlife trade is, this much is certain: It's extraordinarily lucrative. Profit margins are the kind drug kingpins would kill for. Smugglers evade detection by hiding illegal wildlife in legal shipments, they bribe wildlife and customs officials, and they alter trade documents. Few are ever caught, and penalties are usually no more severe than a parking ticket. Wildlife trafficking may very well be the world's most profitable form of illegal trade, bar none.
Smugglers also exploit a loophole in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). With 175 countries as members, CITES is the world's primary treaty to protect wildlife, categorized into three groups according to how endangered a species is perceived to be. Appendix I animals, such as tigers and orangutans, are considered so close to extinction that their commercial trade is banned. Species in Appendix II are less vulnerable and may be traded under a permit system. Those in Appendix III are protected by the national legislation of the country that added them to the list. The CITES treaty has one gaping exception: Specimens bred in captivity do not receive the same protection as their wild counterparts. CITES, after all, applies to wild life.
Proponents of captive breeding argue that it takes pressure off wild populations, decreases crime, satisfies international demand that will never go away, and puts money in the pockets of those willing to commit to "farming" wildlife. But these benefits only hold in countries with enforcement policies strong enough to deter rule breakers. In practice, smugglers establish fake breeding facilities, then claim that animals and plants poached from the wild are captive bred. Fake captive breeding is just one of the techniques Anson Wong used in running a secret front operation for one of the world's largest wildlife-smuggling syndicates.
Now the world's most notorious convicted reptile trafficker is about to move in a new direction, with potentially shattering consequences for one of the most revered, charismatic—and endangered—animals on the planet: the tiger.
Special Operations began its hunt for Anson Wong in the fall of 1993. Ops prided itself on tackling large-scale commercial traffickers. The group's work on exotic-bird trafficking had resulted in the breakup of smuggling operations around the world—involving dozens of convictions in U.S. courts—and had contributed to passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992, which banned the import of many vulnerable bird species. Overnight, imports of macaws, African gray parrots, and other psittacines had dropped from hundreds of thousands a year to hundreds.