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Monday August 10, 2009

Illegal animal trading puts Malaysia on the world map for all the wrong reasons

KUALA LUMPUR: In 2006, Taiwanese authorities seized a three-tonne shipment of ivory from Tanzania worth RM25mil that had transited Penang port.

An Indian national who was caught with an illegal consignment of Indian star tortoises at the KL International Airport in 2007 said he was paid to bring it into the country for a Malaysian buyer.

In the second half of 2008, 167 pangolins were seized in four enforcement cases in Muar, indicating that the coastline was a thriving entry point for the anteaters from Indonesia. It is believed that the pangolins were destined for the restaurant and traditional medicine trade, as well as the mainland Chinese market.

Early this year, genetic fingerprinting of seized tiger parts in southern Thailand shows that the Malaya tiger, endemic to Malaysia and numbering only 500 in the wild, have been blatantly poached and smuggled through our land borders.

These are some of the cases that point to illegal trafficking of wildlife and its parts, and to Malaysia being a transit point, a source country, as well as a consumer hub for endangered wildlife.

Globally, Interpol estimated the illegal trade to be worth US$10bil (RM35bil) to US$20bil (RM70bil) a year. Conservation groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have declared wildlife trade the second biggest direct threat to species survival, after habitat destruction.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) did not respond to requests for the value of animals confiscated last year, but a conservative estimate based on media reports shows that at least RM5mil worth of wildlife was seized in Malaysia last year.

Wildlife trafficking is a trade so lucrative that it is said to rank second after drug trafficking, especially when there is no death penalty to fear in most countries.

Take the pangolin, for instance. According to wildlife trade researchers the creature’s scales and meat are sought after for its purported properties to alleviate rheumatic pains. And as an aphrodisiac too of course, as any purveyor of exotic meat would sell you the idea. That is why pangolins can fetch as much as RM150 per kg or RM500 per animal in the black market.

Traffic, a wildlife trade-monitoring network, fears that the illegal trade in pangolins is already out of control with large shipments of animals being smuggled across numerous international borders, often by the lorry load, to their final destination in China.

It says that shipments busted by Perhilitan are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What slips through the net are far more than one can estimate, in the millions of ringgit over the years.

The rampant smuggling of pangolins has forced Perhilitan to acknowledge that Malaysia has become both an attractive supply and transit country.

Its deputy enforcement director Celescoriano Razond said he feared that international syndicates had turned the country into their main source – not just for pangolin but other wildlife species too.

There have been numerous confiscations of Indian star tortoises at the KLIA with arrests of Indian and Malaysian nationals, yet the smugglers are undeterred. The shipments still come in and the authorities have no other choice but to maintain constant vigilance.

Until recently, the Indian star tortoise from the Indian sub-continent that was banned from export was easily available in local pet shops. The palm-sized exotic pet with star-like markings on its shell was sold at between RM100 and RM150 per creature.

In cases where the illegal shipments of Indian star tortoises were foiled, the authorities have found suitcases packed with the animal, some up to 2,000 pieces in one suitcase.

Perhilitan returns seized consignments to the country of origin but the syndicates involved remain at large.

Existing laws and inadequate manpower remain the biggest setbacks in tackling this scourge. The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 offers no protection for any turtle or tortoise species. A revised law, scheduled to be tabled in Parliament this year, is supposed to plug this particular loophole. However, a check on the draft bill showed that this reptile family is still being left out.

Azrina Abdullah, the immediate ex-director of Traffic, lamented the low fines and reluctance of the courts to put the culprits behind bars. In 2006, conservationists were appalled that a RM7,000 fine (maximum fine is RM15,000) was slapped on a poacher from Tumpat, in Kelantan, for possessing a chopped up tiger in his fridge, instead of the maximum five-year imprisonment. The black market value of a tiger is reported to be US$50,000 (RM180,000).

Currently, fines range from RM1,000 to RM15,000 and imprisonment from a minimum of one year to 10 years. The authorities have indicated a 100% increase in fines and a maximum jail term of 12 years in the pending new law.

Among the issues that need to be addressed is the issuance of special permits by Perhilitan to theme parks, private zoos and individuals for keeping an animal. There is fear that permits given would provide the holders a cover to launder illegal specimens.

At the regional level, a lack of law enforcement and poor investigation are obstacles to efforts in stemming this exploitation of biodiversity of a country and its neighbours.

Recognising that no country can fight this scourge on its own, governments in the region formed in 2005 a regional anti-wildlife trafficking network aimed at sharing intelligence and improving regional enforcement collaboration.

The 10-member Asean – Wildlife Enforce­ment Network (Asean-WEN) is the world’s largest entity of its kind. Despite the heightened awareness among law enforcers and seemingly higher number of seizures, it remains unclear if the network has managed to cripple the syndicates or apprehend the masterminds behind this hideous crime against nature.

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