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The Malaysian Phoenix

With Anson Wong's arrest that September day in 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accom­plished its mission, but it may have lost a war. "We focused everything on one climax," George Morrison told me. Exhausted, he left full-time undercover work. Rick Leach, the group's supervisor, retired, and soon Special Operations had all but shut its doors.

Five years later, on November 10, 2003, Anson went free. Reporters flocked to Malaysia. They parked in front of his headquarters on Penang, a tiny island off the west coast, and tried to take his photograph. He refused to speak to the press.

At the time, Malaysia was embroiled in a smuggling scandal involving western lowland gorillas, a critically endangered species. Traffickers had used Nigeria's University of Ibadan Zoological Gardens as a front to smuggle four infants, snatched from the forest in Cameroon, to Malay­sia's Taiping Zoo. The Taiping Four incident had sparked international outrage. In the midst of this commotion, Anson sat down at his computer and typed a one-line message on, a commercial message board frequented by international wildlife traders: "we need Nigerian primates. pls quote CnF Malaysia."

Anson was back in business.

In truth he had never really stopped. Dur­ing his imprisonment, Cheah Bing Shee continued to run the operation. Now Anson began to frequent Internet message boards, seeking reptiles from India, Madagascar, and Sudan; insects from Mozambique; and "10 tons a month" of sheep horns. He has offered to sell an array of wildlife, including Malaysian reptiles, mynah birds, parrots, and half a million dollars' worth of wild agarwood, prized for its aromatic qualities. To a request for dead birds and mammals, he replied, "We have always specimens."

Since his release he's had only one brush with the law. On March 16, 2006, Manny Esguerra, an alert Thai Airways cargo employee stationed in Manila, questioned a shipment of reptiles en route from the Philippines to Sungai Rusa Wildlife in Malaysia. The consignment lacked export permits, in violation of Philippine law. Esguerra, as required by his airline, telephoned the intended recipient, which confirmed the shipment. Esguerra referred the case to Philippine authorities. Then the Philippine supplier named in the shipping records evaporated. The seized reptiles themselves vanished before authorities had a chance to investigate further, turning up later at a remote Philippine rescue center. Local news articles presented the case as a success, but no one was arrested. The only identifiable person who could be connected to the illegal shipment was safe in Fortress Malaysia—Anson Wong.

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