Sunday, February 17, 2013

Snakes Selling Snakes

This review threatened to go on and on, so I tried keeping it within the scope of the book. I thought the release of this was timely, considering the apparent fever for snake pets during the Year of the Snake. But did those reports have to use pictures of the albino Burmese python?

It's been over two years, but Bryan Christy's NGM article still riles me up. But I guess it's understandable why these people get away with what they did. Given the world's nations' track record in enforcing and strengthening laws that govern human beings, who'd be convinced they can do anything to help protect wildlife from the likes of these 'lizard kings'?

So the trade continues, in both legally and illegally obtained animals for the pet trade and other reasons. Differentiating between 'captive-bred' and poached animals when they've arrived at their destinations is hard, if not impossible, which means poachers and buyers have to be caught red-handed - a slightly less difficult task.

And Bryan Christy is still making people angry. Right now, he's riled up the clergy in the Philippines with his article on the ivory trade and the aftermath of its publication. Crime novels are made of this stuff.



Serpent smugglers
Tales of the illegal trade in cold-blooded animals can make one's blood boil

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 17 February 2013


Investigative journalist and author Bryan Christy made me angry on January 2010 with his National Geographic article on the Asian wildlife trade and one of its alleged kingpins, and how wildlife protection laws and enforcement have largely failed to address issues of wildlife trafficking.

The central figure in this bit of reportage was said alleged kingpin Anson Wong (no relation), who is featured in Christy's book, The Lizard King.


The Lizard King
Fancy a scaly, slithery pet for the Year of the Snake?
You might want to think twice


Wong had been caught trying to smuggle over 90 reptiles out of Malaysia in 2010. He was released from prison in 2012 when his five-year jail sentence was reduced to 17 months.

Both the book and the National Geographic article hints at a cosy relationship between Anson and some officers in the Malaysian Wildlife and National Parks Department (Jabatan Perhilitan). Perhilitan, naturally, said the book was "simply fiction".


Reptile rustlers
The Lizard King traces the beginnings of the illegal animal trade in the US, when zoos practically fought to have the most exotic animal species on display. This was during the Sixties, and nobody cared how the exhibits were obtained. We are also given a glimpse into the backgrounds of the enforcement agents who stalked and prosecuted these smugglers.

If I read this book right, it all began with love.

Two figures in this book: Ray Van Nostrand and Henry A Molt, Jr were fond of reptiles and eventually turned their passion into a business. Both would also do time in jail; Van Nostrand would venture into drugs and was snared in a drug bust, while Molt would set up an international animal smuggling network.

When Ray Van Nostrand went to jail, his son Mike took over the reins and expanded his father's reptile-selling business into a major smuggling outfit that could have rivalled Molt's.

Other key plots in this book include the cat-and-mouse chase between Mike Van Nostrand and Chip Bepler, an agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS); the beginnings of Henry Molt Jr's reptile racket; and how an undercover USFWS agent helped apprehend Anson Wong in 1998.

This gripping account of the US authorities' pursuit of wildlife smugglers, albeit one that feels roughly sketched out, is short but well-paced. The exact magnitude and enormity of the illegal wildlife trade is conveyed by the behaviours of the smugglers; facts and figures appear only sporadically.

But there is enough bad behaviour to make you angry. A famous quote belongs, of course, to our very own Anson. "I could sell a panda and nothing," he once boasted to the undercover USFWS agent who'd got him arrested. "As long as I'm still [in Malaysia] I'm safe."

Another annoying aspect is carelessness, especially by those who should know better. Two tragic tales illustrate how love can make one stupid. A man considered "the dean of American herpetologists" in the 1950s died days after a venomous African boomslang bit him.

A surprising mention is snake expert Joseph B Slowinski. Deep in the Myanmar interior on 9/11, Slowinski showed no concern when a snake bit him, thinking it was a harmless "mimic" of the more deadly krait. Sadly, it turned out to be a real krait.

Love makes one do funny things, I guess.


Long live the (lizard) kings?
There is no fairy-tale ending in The Lizard King - no ending, for that matter. Not long after Mike Van Nostrand went to jail, Chip Bepler died of a brain tumour.

According to a syndicated article in The Star in December 2010, Bepler's quarry has returned to the trade. It also underscored the difficulty in regulating the ongoing wildlife trade, which also sells illegally acquired animals and endangered species.

The Lizard King
The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers

Bryan Christy
Twelve (2008)
239 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-446-69975-4

Buy from Amazon

3.5 out of 5
No one has pinned down how much the trade's worth; estimates have gone up to billions in US dollars. Demand is high and all sorts of arguments were made for the trade. Jobs. Inspiring kids to learn about the environment.

How does one learn enough about the environment or help conserve it by keeping a Burmese python in a glass tank? Will this 'love' of the environment or the cute little snake remain after said animal outgrows its enclosure and starts threatening the family dog or cat, or when owners don't 'love' their pets any more?

Didn't they learn anything from the Burmese pythons in the Everglades or the extermination of over forty animals on a private farm in Muskingum County, Ohio, some of which were endangered big cats?

"No no no, we didn't poach these from the wild - they are captive bred!" Really? Then what about this little nugget from a local news portal (emphasis mine)?

The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is a popular snake in the global pet trade. It is one of Indonesia’s top exports, and stocks are declared as captive breds. In 2011, however, scientists Jessica Lyons and Daniel Natusch from the University of New South Wales found that at least 80% of Indonesia’s green tree python exports were poached from the wild.

All this, plus Christy's book, leaves one to believe that the pet trade is mostly about profit and prestige. Rare exotic specimens being marketed like the latest Louis-Vuitton bag (as opposed to being used to make Louis-Vuitton bags), Nike sneakers, or some action figure.

Such a demand, fuelled by hubris and naivete, only helps the likes of those 'lizard kings' more than the environment or the animals.

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