Staying ahead of traffickers

TANNED and toned, Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhili-tan) director-general Abdul Kadir Hashim is a sportsman – and it shows. An avid traveller, the father of three keeps fit by trekking and hitting the gym regularly.

He spent the first decade of his Perhilitan career doing field work and studying the Sumatran rhino, Malayan gaur and serow before a stint in enforcement led to him helming the Perak Department of Wildlife and National Parks. He knows the peninsula’s forests like his own backyard and, with his Aug 25 appointment as DG at age 50, the Perakian has come full circle since joining the department in 1992.

He talks about Perhilitan’s plans to outwit smugglers and keep Malaysia’s wildlife safe.

How rampant is wildlife crime in Malaysia?

From 2014 to September this year, we arrested 45 poachers and 128 smugglers. Last year, there were 34 smuggling cases compared with 52 – as of September this year. But an increase doesn’t necessarily mean that smuggling has got worse – it could be the result of greater enforcement. And if the number of cases go down, it doesn’t mean that we’ve slacked on enforcement, it could be that fewer people are smuggling.

There are always two ways of looking at things. Smuggling activities on the peninsula is under control. To me, rampant means peddlers selling sambar deer meat by the roadside and in the open. That’s not the case here because our enforcement is consistent.

We also work closely with the Royal Malaysia Police, Malaysian Armed Forces, Customs Department and other relevant agencies. And to curb transnational wildlife crime, we share intelligence information, collaborate on identifying wildlife crime networks, and conduct joint enforcement operations with Interpol, the Asean-Wildlife Enforcement Network, and our neighbouring countries.

What are we doing about it?

The Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 is being amended to increase existing penalties up to a maximum of RM1mil and raising the jail term to 10 years; to include caning as a penalty; and to introduce a provision covering online wildlife sales.

The amendments will also make wildlife owners responsible if animals in their charge hurt or threaten human life.

Also, the sambar deer and barking deer will be listed as a “totally protected” species to secure the Malayan tiger’s main food source; in the meantime, the moratorium on hunting these deer species has been extended.

The law must be updated. Times have changed. We’re seeing things we’ve never encountered before, like the sale of wildlife on social media. We must synergise and strategise. For vast areas and borders, we’ll use cameras.

We cannot use the lack of manpower as an excuse because, like money, manpower will never be enough so we use the National Blue Ocean Strategy and work with the army and police.

And Perhilitan must restore its image and change the public’s negative perception of us. When NGOs highlight cases in the media, it’s not that we don’t know what’s going on but, often, we’ve had to keep quiet because we’re conducting our own investigations and cannot risk a bust.

We are sometimes slammed on social media for failing to act when animals are being hunted and traded illegally but it’s not true. We’ve done a lot but nature doesn’t make the headlines. People aren’t interested in wildlife. They’d rather read about corruption and scandals.

In China, helmeted hornbill products cost five times more than elephant tusks on the black market, according to wildlife trade watchdog Traffic – are hornbills the latest craze?

The top five species smuggled here are pangolins, black pond turtles, monitor lizards, white-rumped shamas and ball pythons. August was the first time we seized hornbill parts. The beaks were part of a RM2mil seizure in the Klang Valley. It was an isolated case but we know there’s a syndicate because it also happens in Indonesia.

We have our think tank and we’ve got a strategy in place. We’re working on it.

The Malayan tiger, tapir and Indian elephant are among the world’s most threatened mammals. What are your conservation plans?

We’ve identified 133 locations for tapir crossing and installed close to 300 tapir-crossing signboards, transverse bars, and amber lights to prevent the animals from being hit by vehicles.

We’re also doing research collaborations with the Copenhagen Zoo, Danish Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF Malaysia and the International Union on Conservation of Nature to understand the tapir better. Our Sungai Dusun Wildlife Conservation Centre has seen 11 tapir births since 2004. A tapir distribution survey is being done and we’re in the midst of developing the 2017-2026 Malayan Tapir Conservation Action Plan to manage the species.

The National Tiger Conservation Action Plan is being implemented but it’s crucial for all stakeholders to work together because the tiger’s natural habitat is fragmented and sparse.

A detailed survey has been carried out to produce a more accurate figure of the peninsula’s tiger population. A special unit has been set up to protect tigers in the Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu national parks, and the Royal Belum and Endau-Rompin state parks.

As for elephants, we’re relocating them out of human-elephant conflict areas and installing electric fences in such places. Since 2009, 20 fences have been put up in Perak, Pahang, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor.

What is your biggest challenge?

Intelligence work. Gathering quality, credible information, and sieving through the false reports. Smugglers these days use sophisticated concealment methods. They do their homework on us. Their modus operandi keeps changing.

I hope the public cooperates with us. Tell us if you spot an endangered animal. Don’t keep wildlife as pets. Let them live in peace in their natural habitat. Have a heart. They’re not domestic animals. They belong in the forests. Pet shops should sell rabbits and cats – not animals that belong in the wild.

The good thing is, Malaysians are more educated now. They don’t eat wildlife for its purported medicinal properties. Here, the illegal wildlife trade is about money, not consumption.

Tell us your No.1 agenda.

We have a few major issues to contend with: wildlife conflict, shrinking habitats, smuggling, poaching, and foreigners plundering our forests’ treasures. When I came in, the first thing I did was draw up a strategy to strengthen the department so that we can tackle what’s ahead.

My strategy is to step up enforcement and foster closer collaboration among Government agencies, ministries and NGOs. We must forge an alliance with wildlife authorities and organisations locally and abroad. Perhilitan wants to have an international presence. To do this we need to have scenario planning for the next five to 10 years.

What is scenario planning?

Identifying clearly what we want to do – which is still being discussed. We may come up with a guidebook once the details are finalised.

Moving forward, we have to re-look what’s been done before. To improve and strengthen our role, we must revise certain things. Times have changed. When the wildlife food chain in a forest is disrupted, strange things happen.

Take tigers for example. Tigers eat deer and barking deer. If these are hunted, what do tigers eat? And if tigers are shot or wounded in traps, they’ve to go to the fringes of the forest to find easy prey like cows and goats. We have to anticipate that.

We used to have vast forests so there was no conflict between man and beast. But habitats have since shrunk, so the animals are coming out. We cannot stop development. The rakyat need jobs. But when habitats shrink, animals have nowhere to live. Less forest area also makes it easier for poachers to go in and hunt wildlife.

This is the human-wildlife conflict we’re facing today. Wildlife traders used to sell the illegal products by the roadside. Now, they’re on social media like Facebook and group chats like WhatsApp. Criminals today are smart.

They know the law well so we have to be one step ahead. And that requires forward thinking.

Scenario planning ensures that our officers are trained to handle what’s coming. We want to make sure they’re ready.

These days, unlike before, our men cannot be gone during the weekends or public holidays. You don’t know when the animals will come out. It’s not business as usual anymore. We have to change the way we work.