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Published: Tuesday November 20, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday June 2, 2013 MYT 7:01:29 PM

Amassing a citizen army

Curbing the illegal wildlife trade calls for not just enforcement strength, but also an alert and informed public.

LAST YEAR was the worst on record for rhino poaching globally. But 2012 is shaping up to be worse: until October, 488 rhinos have been killed.

“In 2011, 400 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone. In 2010, it was around 300, and the 10 years before that it averaged around 20 a year,” says Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic South-East Asia.

There is a huge demand for rhino horns in Vietnam, where people believe it can cure cancer. Last year, Vietnam’s last remaining Javan rhinoceros was found shot dead and hornless, in Cat Tien National Park. Elephants face a similarly bleak outlook. A huge resurgence in demand for their tusks has fuelled thousands of killings every year – some estimate up to 25,000 in 2011. It isn’t just Africa that’s getting hit.

“The illegal wildlife trade is draining South-East Asian forests of its wildlife,” says Shepherd, adding that big cats such as leopards and lions are beginning to show up in seizures and traditional medicine labels – an indication that traders are looking for alternatives in light of dwindling tiger populations.

Whether it’s “Harry Potter owls” in the pet trade, or a bogus claim that tokay geckos can cure HIV, it is the consumption demands of people that hold up the trafficking pyramid – cut off the base, and the rest with crumble. Which is why getting through to the consumers is key to stemming this rising tide of illegal wildlife crime.

Emerging trends are further complicating enforcement efforts. It is no longer just porous borders or innovative smuggling techniques which we need to worry about; the trade is moving online. People are buying highly endangered turtles on web-trading sites, and getting them shipped straight to their doorsteps. The fact that wildlife protection laws pre-date this new trend only serves to make more difficult an already challenging task of monitoring and enforcement by wildlife agencies that typically suffer from being small and under-funded.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people who want to help; they just do not know how.

“I get people asking all the time,” says Shepherd. “One guy even told us, ‘I have a gun and pilot’s licence … how can I use my skills to contribute?”

But it is not heroes that Traffic is looking for. The bulk of work when it comes to saving wildlife does not involve high-adrenaline confrontations with bad guys. It involves data collection – building the evidence for convictions, and supplying information which will shed light on one of the world’s murkiest underground industries.

As enforcement officer numbers in the field and at custom checkpoints pale in comparison to the sheer scale of this illegal industry, the only way wildlife protection efforts stand a chance is if lay persons join in the fight. For this to happen, it will require an alert and informed public. Which is why the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) recently held a workshop on Identification of Commonly Traded Wildlife Species and Products. By ensuring people are well-versed with the issues surrounding illegal wildlife trade, it hopes for a multiplier effect, as each person will be better-equipped to share his knowledge with others. Whether it’s explaining to friends and family how their decision to buy an exotic pet or consume wild meat is causing havoc to ecosystems and potentially fast-tracking the road to extinction for some species, or doing undercover surveys of restaurants, medicine shops and pet stores, or reporting suspected wildlife crimes, Average Joes can make a difference.

Know the subject

During the five-hour workshop held in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, we see pictures of animals, dead and alive, sometimes in parts or no longer recognisable as derivatives in a medicine bottles.

“Step one involves learning about the issues,” says Shepherd. “Get your head around the wildlife trade, because only then can you start talking to people, and only then, will you be in a good place to do something about it.”

There isn’t a better person to relay those details than Shepherd, who has spent much of his life fighting the illegal wildlife trade. His words are coloured with personal accounts of the sheer blatancy employed by those flaunting the law, and the number of people who get away with it, scot-free.

He guides the room of 30 participants through a 101 on the trade, easing us in by explaining the differences between illegal, and legally traded, wildlife. It might not occur to people that everyone consumes wildlife. The term does not just refer to tigers and exotic reptiles, but a host of everyday items: the paper we write on, the anchovies in our nasi lemak, maybe even the orchids in your grandmother’s garden. The trick is being able to distinguish between the two.

Due diligence starts with simple questions: What’s the difference between a reticulated python bought from a pet store with and without licence?

Some answers are simple: possession of the latter would be illegal. For others, the answers might be more obscure. For example, how do we know that the licence is real, and not forged? How do we know that the licence was not meant for another snake?

Understanding where the lines can begin to blur is important – not least because the legal trade is of huge economic importance. Global imports in legal wildlife products were estimated at US$323bil in 2009 (the bulk of which was timber and fisheries products). Provided sustainable management policies are in place, the legal wildlife trade benefits millions of people each year. The illegal trade, on the other hand, benefits few and occurs at the expense of everyone. Accurate numbers are impossible due to the illegal nature of the trade but estimates go up to US$7.8bil to US$10bil (RM23.4bil to RM$30bil) a year, excluding timber and fisheries. It’s the middlemen who gets the biggest slice of the pie. The poachers, often estate workers or rural farmers, take on the most amount of risk and get a disproportionately small amount.

Whilst wealth in the hands of criminals grow, everything else suffer: wild animal populations decline; governments lose revenues from duties and taxes; and there is heightened risk of infectious diseases epidemics. The emergence of HIV, Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) have all been linked to the wildlife trade.

It pays to get one’s head around these facts, Shepherd suggests. That way, when a friend innocently argues that the exotic pet he just bought is not harming anybody, one is better-equipped to explain otherwise.

Workshop participant Shivani Chakravarty, 18, knew the trade existed, but now she understands how widespread and devastating it can be, as well as how Malaysia’s laws fit into the picture. For example, now she can explain to any friends interested in buying an exotic pet, that they should at least make sure it has the appropriate licence.

An alarming number of illegal wildlife or wildlife products slips through the cracks every year, acquiring “legal” documentation, due to loopholes in the system. There is a black market for instance, in documentation for legal ownership of elephant ivory. Sugar gliders, those cute marsupial possums found in Indonesia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea that have become popular pets here, could easily have been smuggled in from the wild.

The only country which has export quotas for wild-caught sugar gliders is Indonesia. In 2010 and 2011, 225 were allowed to be harvested from the wild annually. However, it has been estimated that as many as 10,000 or more could be removed from Indonesia’s forests every year, the bulk of which end up in breeding farms in Jakarta, which export these wild-caught animals as captive-breds.

Malaysia has picked up on the problem and recently listed sugar gliders as a protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, making it a legal requirement for owners to apply for licences to own or breed this species.

Call the hotline

Shepherd’s take-home message to the workshop participants is that everyone can learn to be diligent by educating themselves. One of the simplest ways for the public to help curb the illegal wildlife trade is to report them by calling the Wildlife Crime Hotline: 019-3564194. Launched in 2007 by MYCAT (a coalition of Traffic, the Malaysian Nature Society, Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia Programme and WWF Malaysia), the hotline makes it easier for people to report on suspected wildlife crimes. It seems to be working for reports which can be acted upon have rose from 22 in 2008 to 106 in 2011. The wildlife crimes vary, ranging from animal cruelty to illegal gaharu collection to tiger poaching.

MYCAT, which mans the hotline, will forward the reports to the relevant government authorities, be it wildlife, forestry, fisheries or veterinary services agencies. Informants are kept confidential and MYCAT follows up on the actions taken. The results are published, which helps make enforcement processes more transparent and accountable. Action was taken on 41% of the reports made in 2008, 71% in 2009, 61% in 2010, and 97% in 2011. Thanks to the tip-offs, traders have been arrested, confiscations made at stalls and wild meat restaurants and a good deal of snares, deactivated.

But there are other loopholes to tackling Malaysia’s wildlife crimes. Up until recently, most illegal wildlife traders who have had their licences to trade, keep or display of wildlife taken away by Perhilitan have been able to continue operating under business licences issued by the local authorities.

Perhilitan is onto this, and together with MYCAT, has developed the Cancelling Licences to Aid Wildlife (CLAW) initiative. The idea is simple: facilitate the flow of information between Perhilitan and local authorities, to ensure that the latter have the necessary information to decide whether to revoke the licences for commercial business operations. However, no business licences have been revoked under the programme so far due to lack of information on repeat offenders.

This is why CLAW needs more members of the public to make use of the Wildlife Crime Hotline. Malaysia already has tougher laws in place, so what it needs next is an army of educated and alert citizens to do ground surveillance and help pin-point the culprits.

Related Story: How the public can help

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Environment, illegal wildlife trade, poaching, MYCAT, Wildlife Crime Hotline, CLAW

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