UNSURPRISINGLY, social media is the hot method right now for illegal wildlife traders to drum up interest in their animals and solicit new customers.
Popular local Facebook groups for hikers and outdoor lovers have become recruitment grounds for such traders, adding “newbies” into more secluded Whatsapp and other instant messaging groups.
Still, some people are trying their best to disrupt such operations, such as outdoors instructor A.V. Veerak, who first found out when two of his students showed him a slow loris they had purchased online for RM700.
“I asked them and other contacts to add me to such groups, leveraging on the knowledge I could contribute to the outdoors discussion,” said Veerak.
Veerak, who had been monitoring these groups as far back as 2014, said he then began actively infiltrating these groups to monitor and hopefully report such instances of sales to the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).
“I also engaged an informal team of former illegal wildlife traders, most of them small-timers, and keepers to monitor the going-ons through assumed identities,” he said.
“Quite a few of these traders do their own poaching, or hire professional poachers to get the animals for them,” he added.
Other methods of procuring animals include opportunistic buys from indigenous villagers who can hunt for certain animals as allowed in the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.
StarMetro was afforded a first-hand look at some of these closed Whatsapp groups, where new people were added in to such wildlife and animal lover “discussion” groupchats from the hiking and outdoors groups on Facebook.
Exotic pets are a relatively small market, because of the difficulty in keeping pets as well as the questionable legality, and after buying one animal, the individual is not likely to purchase another animal anytime soon, unless it suddenly died and the owner has cash to spare.
Adding these “newbies” helps increase market exposure and potential client base.
Looking through one chatgroup via one of the assumed identities, StarMetro saw a barrage of “cute” wildlife pictures in captivity, from Asian leopard cats, lorises and small-clawed otters to a baby tapir, that were posted to generate interest and sales.
These groups also help in locating new animals for poaching.
Eager newbies, in their enthusiasm to share rare animal sightings, or egged on by the traders or poachers, also can unwittingly divulge important geographical information to track the animal down later.
Some of the newbies also “graduate” from just purchasing a protected species as a pet, to becoming resellers and runners for the main traders.
One thing Veerak noted, for the groups he was monitoring, was the close proximity of traders and runners to each other, ranging from family to trusted friends such as two networks based in Shah Alam and Negri Sembilan.
These networks are also a feature noted by Perhilitan, according to Deputy Director-General I Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim when contacted by StarMetro.
While there is a cybercrime unit set up by the department to monitor these online groups and sales, often the same animal is posted by several different people on different social network groups, all hoping to gain a commission on behalf of the original poacher or seller.
With so many layers of sellers and resellers, tracing back and building up a profile of the main poachers was a painstaking process, said Abdul Kadir.
Nevertheless in 2015, the department managed to hit nearly 100% of the original poachers and sellers targetted in such sting operations, he added.
Still, said Veerak, the public should also be better educated on the sale of protected and totally protected wildlife (Schedule 1 and Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010), as this trade was also ecologically destructive.
To find out whether an animal species you are buying is protected or not, visit www.wildlife.gov.my/carian/ and type in the name of the animal.
A former dealer
Zul (an alias) is jittery while waiting for The Star’s reporter to meet him at a roadside eatery in Bukit Tinggi.
Not much of a surprise, as some of the illegal wildlife traders in the group he and outdoors instructor A.V. Veerak monitors have been issuing threats in their general direction, and you never know when suspicion might fall upon you at the last minute.
Having had a lifelong interest in unusual insects and rare birds, Zul was involved in poaching and trading these animals from 2012 to 2015.
“Certain insects and animals, such as stick insects, Malaysia tarantulas and kumbang tanduk (Atlas beetles), are in high demand among exotic pet owners locally and in Singapore,” he said.
Sought-after birds include buffy fish owls (Ketupa ketupu), the rare Black Baza eagle and other birds of prey.
“When I started out, I was not aware that such actions, trapping and keeping these animals were illegal, but now I have learnt that these are protected or totally protected species,” he said.
“Instead, they will hand over the sale to a secondary seller, who is usually another established person in the market and is trusted, and he or she will get a commission for each sale.
“Sometimes we also use third-party sellers, who are usually the newcomers and more naive ones, to market or become runners for the rare cash-on-delivery (COD) sales.”
Usually though, the preferred method of transaction is for money to be banked into the third-party or secondary sellers’ accounts, and the original poacher then passes the animal to the customer at a pre-arranged location and time.
Both methods have their pros and cons, as gullible buyers have been “gamed” into transferring money for a non-existent animal, while COD means opening yourself up to a possible sting operation.
Dealers, whether primary or secondary, also make use of express bus routes to courier animals to almost anywhere in peninsular Malaysia (see personal experience).
“One reason I stopped, and got in touch with Veerak, was because the forests were getting quieter and quieter, especially the ones I frequented.
“And I also realised that what I had been doing was wrong,” Zul said.
To demonstrate how easy it was to purchase a Schedule II animal, StarMetro contacted one seller who had posted a picture of a Black Baza Eagle (Aviceda leuphotes) for RM250, cash on delivery.
Establishing a cover story that I was from up north and in the Klang Valley for a few days, I was looking to purchase a bird of prey for my fictional boss who was into falconry.
The reply was that the Black Baza had been sold off, and instead could he interest me in new Brahminy Kite hatchlings (Haliastur indus), also known locally as “lang winston” for RM650 a bird, via “postage”.
Postage, according to the dealer, meant getting an express bus to drop off the animal, secured in a package, at a pre-arranged point.
As an assurance, the seller showed screenshots of another animal consignment he had sent to Skudai earlier that day.
After negotiating the price down to RM600 COD, a meeting location was arranged in Port Klang.
The dealer also explained that he was just selling it, and that the bird was actually owned by another dealer.
I was also forewarned that in this business, buyers would be vetted to see if they were genuine or trying to “game” the dealer, or maybe even an enggang (hornbill, slang for Perhilitan personnel going undercover).
A day later, the dealer sent a request to ask if I could drive down to Malacca where the seller was on holiday, to pick up the bird.
This was politely rejected and we stuck to the original arrangements.
As Perhilitan deputy director-general I Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim was kept in the loop of the impending purchase and its role in our news story, he put us in contact with one of his undercover (UC) teams who would then move in to retrieve the hatchling after the writer had positively identified the bird for sale.
After some final reconnaisance, placement of the UC team to prevent runners and briefing on code phrases, the writer walked into the meeting point which was a non-descript hair salon.
Inside the salon, after identifying myself as the purchaser, the bird was brought around for inspection.
Upon visual confirmation that this was indeed the kite hatchling as posted in a picture, I asked for directions to the nearest cash machine to withdraw money, and exited.
Less than a minute later, the Perhilitan UC team moved in.
As the Perhilitan personnel were taking down details of the salon employees and securing the bird, the writer’s cellphone began ringing and the numbers that flashed on the screen were confirmed by Veerak as belonging to the seller as well as the bird owner operating in Klang.