Growing problem of plant thieves

Tightly secured: Bonsai trees belonging to bonsai artist Mike Siow are chained up to keep the expensive plants from being stolen.

KUALA Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has discovered that several shoots of Red Masters (Aglaonema) planted by its Landscape and Recreation Department have gone missing from Jalan Desa Kiara in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.

It was a case of plant theft, the local authority said.

“It looked like the plants were pulled out very carefully.

“I think whoever took it wanted to replant them elsewhere, ’’ said DBKL Corporate Planning Department director Khairul Azmir Ahmad, who condemned the action.

Balu says stealing plants and vandalism are common at the Kuala Selangor Nature Park.Balu says stealing plants and vandalism are common at the Kuala Selangor Nature Park.

In an official statement released via its social media page, DBKL suspected that those who took the plants might simply be gardening enthusiasts, who were taken in by the Red Masters’ unique shape and attractive colour.

But in doing so, they had committed theft and destroyed city assets, the statement added.

Those found guilty can be fined under the Vandalism (Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur) By-laws 1991, which carries a maximum RM2,000 compound or jail term for not more than one year, or both.

Revealing that the plant theft in Jalan Desa Kiara was not an isolated incident, Khairul said DBKL staff had previously reported similar incidents in areas like Solaris Mont Kiara and Sri Hartamas.

DBKL is not alone in its frustrations.

Nik Shukri Nik Soh, who is Landscape and Parks Department vice-president at Putrajaya Corporation (PPj), said the worst incident of plant theft was discovered during the early years of the Floria DiRaja Putrajaya festival.

“Flowering hanging plants, valuable ornamental orchids as well as topiary trees were among those that went missing after the event.

“Although the stolen plants were replaced by appointed contractors under an insurance coverage in their contract, it still fell on PPj to put in measures like fences, entry restrictions and monitoring systems for scheduled and systematic disposal of exhibition materials after the event, ” said Nik Shukri.

Since its founding in 1995, PPj’s landscape department has planted around 70,000 trees in the administrative capital’s public parks, residential areas, promenade, waterfront and main roads, spread over 1,700ha.DBKL recently found several shoots of Red Masters planted by its Landscape and Recreation Department missing from Jalan Desa Kiara in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.DBKL recently found several shoots of Red Masters planted by its Landscape and Recreation Department missing from Jalan Desa Kiara in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.

“Landscape plants are a necessity when it comes to providing visual and aesthetic value.

“They also work to keep an area cool, making it comfortable for leisure activities.

“The presence of plants is an essential component in achieving a harmonious balance with nature within a built environment.

“So, it is frustrating for the department when these plants are either destroyed or removed by residents or irresponsible parties, ” Nik Shukri added.

Although plant theft and vandalism in Putrajaya are rare, measures taken by PPj include not planting valuable plants at sites under its jurisdiction, with the exception of areas monitored by CCTV cameras.

The cost of replacing stolen or missing plants has been described by local authorities as minimal as they have their own nurseries.

However, Mohd Noor Abdullah, a nursery operator in Sungai Buloh who has 48 years of experience supplying plants to housing projects and local councils, pointed out that the cost of manpower needed for its care, nutrition, transport to site, replanting and follow-up maintenance must still be considered.

“Take the case of DBKL’s stolen Red Masters as example. Each plant may not cost more than RM60, ” he said.

“But if more than 10 plants are stolen, this will come up to RM600 in losses.

“In the end, it is the taxpayer who will have to bear the cost of the replacement, ” Mohd Noor noted.Conservation Threat

Plant theft is not only confined to public areas under the purview of local governments’ landscaping departments.

When contacted, Malaysian Nature Society conservation head Balu Perumal said theft and vandalism were common at the Kuala Selangor Nature Park (KSNP).

“The most common form of theft is committed by encroachers, who cut down the trees to be made into poles for construction work, ” he said.

However, rather than using enforcement to deter encroachers, he feels the best way to address the issue is through education and public awareness on the importance of nature conservation.

In his 30 years of working in conservation, Balu has observed that most plant thefts are committed by collectors who simply cannot resist the allure of plants that are rare or have some form of aesthetic value.

“In the past, I came across cases of wild orchids on the endangered list that were put on exhibition.

“The growers were not big-time criminals but merely hobbyists, who would comply if made aware of restrictions against taking such species out of the forest.

“As such, there needs to be stronger focus on legal provisions against plant theft, as the consequences can be dire, ” he said.

However, Balu opined that stricter enforcement should be imposed on poachers who were stealing from our forests for commercial purposes.

“There are certain shorea and dipterocarp species which are on the global endangered list, and more stringent checks are needed to ensure they are not taken out of forests.

“Loss of commercial resources aside, there is the environmental aspect to consider.

“Poachers of wild plants do not care about the damage they cause during the removal process.

“Consideration must also be made for the consequences of moving a plant from its original habitat.

“Even if the plant can survive, there is no telling what kind of bacteria or viruses it can transmit or how it will affect its surroundings during relocation and while in its new habitat, ” he warned.

On laws governing the theft of wild plants, Peninsular Malaysia Forestry Department (JPSM) director-general Datuk Mohd Ridza Awang said the public were banned from entering areas gazetted as permanent forest reserves and helping themselves to forest products, such as trees, orchids and ferns, without permission under the National Forestry Act 1984 (Act 313).

Based on records, he said JPSM had arrested 1,329 offenders between 2016 and 2020.

“The cases cover a wide range of offences and one of them is the taking of high-value species such as chengal, balau and merbau.

“The arrest of offenders are the result of public tip-off, periodic field monitoring as well as integrated operations with other enforcement agencies.

“Over a period of 10 years, 2,825 offences were detected and investigated by JPSM, ” he added.

The largest case handled by JPSM involved the seizure of agarwood (hardwood) in Kota Tinggi, Johor and Seri Kembangan, Selangor last year.

The joint operation involved the police, Malaysian Timber Industry Board, Inland Revenue Board, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry and National Registration Department.

According to records, 92 species of dipterocarp, including various species of meranti and black resin in peninsular Malaysia, are listed as endangered, rare and threatened.

Under the International Trade Act of Endangered Species 2008 (Act 686), trade of such items requires a permit.

“JPSM believes the illegal removal of these rare plants from our forests is spurred by high market demand, but we do not know the black market value of these species, ” said Mohd Ridza.

However, he emphasised that although it was JPSM’s responsibility to manage and preserve the country’s permanent forest reserves, the public also had a part to play in safeguarding our priceless forest treasures.

“Uncontrolled harvesting of forest products will eventually lead to resource imbalance, biodiversity deterioration, declining forest health and ultimately climate change, ” Mohd Ridza warned.

He said JPSM currently did not issue special permission to individuals for the harvesting of rare plant species.

“Any individual detected owning, selling or cultivating (rare species) will be investigated by JPSM to identify its origins, ” he added.

Those found guilty will be charged under the National Forestry Act 1984 (Act 313), and can be fined between RM10,000 and RM500,000 or imprisoned between three and 20 years, or both.

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