Malaysia’s The Star: “as compelling a read as any best-selling thriller.”

Two Sundays ago, Malaysia’s NST ran two full pages on the The Lizard King.  This week, Malaysia’s largest newspaper, The Star, runs this wonderful review.  Azrina Abdullah is Regional Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, the highly respected wildlife trade monitoring organization.

 The Star Online > Lifebookshelf Sunday September 28, 2008

Enthralling stuff


The shadowy world of illegal wildlife trading is laid bare in this non-fiction book that reads like a thriller.

The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers
By Bryan Christy
Publisher: Twelve, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0446580953

 IT’S been compared to the illegal drugs and arms trade: experts estimate that profits from the world’s illegal trade in wildlife runs into billions of dollars. But, just like the drugs trade, illegal wildlife trading is a shadowy, little known world.

This book sheds some light and puts faces to what is a complex problem; and, most importantly for local readers, it includes an intriguing Malaysian angle.

The Lizard King begins with the story of one Tomas Medina who attempts to smuggle snakes and tortoises from Argentina into the United States by packing them in hidden pockets and pillow cases distributed among his luggage.

From there, the book goes on to provide fascinating details about how illegal traders like Medina are part of a worldwide network – and it’s a network that includes a trader from Penang, too.

We are given a rare glimpse into this network, which is managed like a well oiled machine able to move one of the world’s rarest species, the ploughshare tortoise from its native Madagascar to overseas markets where it can fetch up to US$10,000 (RM34,000) each.

Along the way, this page-turner of a book introduces us to the fascinating characters that inhabit the two sides of this trade: the dedicated enforcement officers whose job it is to protect endangered wildlife and those who exploit that wildlife illegally for profit.

The central character of this book is Mike Van Nostrand, owner of Strictly Reptiles in Florida, a major supplier of reptiles not only in the United States but globally, too.

Van Nostrand initially had not wanted to continue his father’s reptile business: “… Mike knew he did not want to go into the reptile business. It wasn’t the animals, it was the people”. However, like his father, he was a shrewd businessman and understood the huge profits the business could reap; how could he say no to pocketing US$200,000 (RM680,000) a year before he turned 25?

Opposing him is Agent Chip Bepler, an enforcement officer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who starts sniffing into Strictly Reptiles’ illegal activities and pulls out all the stops to arrest Mike.

Bepler is an inspiring personality, especially when he displays dogged persistence in bringing Strictly Reptiles to justice for a crime many consider victimless.

The cat and mouse game between these two main characters escalates to reveal an international syndicate and the involvement of officials trusted to protect wildlife but who instead have been corrupted into facilitating the illegal trade.

Does it sound like a fictional thriller? Well, this non-fiction book is just as compelling a read as any best-selling thriller.

To make it even more compelling for Malaysians, there is one chapter devoted to Penangite Anson Wong, our very own major player in the wildlife trade.

This is riveting chapter, and reading about Wong’s take on the illegal wildlife trade brings new meaning to the phrase Malaysia Boleh!

The objectivity of Christy’s writing is praiseworthy in an area known for its fierce polemics. For instance, the book leaves you to decide what type of person Van Nostrand is, and tries to explain where someone like him is coming from.

What particularly stands out is Van Nostrand’s understanding of and respect for Bepler’s work even though they were on opposite sides of the wildlife trade war.


There are more than enough facts to keep you turning the pages and learning about the ingenious, and in most cases, the simplest and obvious ways people have smuggled wildlife.

This seems to be an extremely well researched book, with the author basing his account on records and transcripts from enforcement agencies such as the Law Enforcement Division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of Justice, and US Attorney’s Office.

Apart from the van Nostrands, interviews were also conducted with the wildlife traders themselves including Wong, and other players such as Ralph Davis, and Bob Clark.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a nature lover or not because, like any good book, The Lizard King evokes a rollercoaster of emotions through Christy’s portrayal of his cast of characters. That is how a book, any book, should affect its reader, and Christy delivers.

Azrina Abdullah is a member of an organisation that monitors the illegal wildlife trade in the region.


© 1995-2008 Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)

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One Response to “Malaysia’s The Star: “as compelling a read as any best-selling thriller.””

  1. Bryan Christy » Blog Archive » Well Done to the Minister! Says:

    [...] champion on this issue.  Here’s my coverage of her work (Full disclosure:  She also gave The Lizard King a positive review).  Her courage to stand up and speak out on behalf of the country she is proud of and its wildlife [...]