PETALING JAYA: From urban centres to deep jungles, the illegal wildlife trade is a multimillion-ringgit business spread across the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak.
It leaves a trail of cruelty starting from the forest – to the longhouses, markets in cities and towns, to certain “pet shops” and then onwards to the homes of the well-heeled, both within and out of Malaysia.
Some of these rare wildlife are endangered and protected under the law, and the most popular animals include macaques, hornbills, rare parrots, colourful birds, rare reptiles, baby sunbears, deer, tortoises, leopard cats and so on.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime estimates the global wildlife trafficking industry to be worth between US$7bil (RM28bil) and US$23bil (RM92bil) annually.
Malaysia, one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, is known as a notorious “destination airport” and transit location on the wildlife trade route.
A 2016 report by Wildlife Justice Commission revealed that Kuala Lumpur is the easiest port to move illegal wildlife, whether in or out, in part due to traffickers needing to pay significantly less bribes for illegal consignments – also known as “tax” – at airports.
The report also revealed that it costs traffickers 50% less to move contraband through KLIA and Klia2, compared to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Yesterday, the police said it would recommend mandatory whipping for criminals involved in wildlife smuggling, and tighten conditions for the issuance of firearms licence and hunting permits.
This followed a May 16 landmark decision by the Kuala Terengganu Sessions Court to mete out a whopping RM1.56mil fine on two Vietnamese nationals caught poaching, making it the biggest fine ever imposed on wildlife crime.
Conservationists lauded this as a good indication that law enforcement is finally treating wildlife crime seriously, though they added that stiffer penalties alone were not enough to deter such crimes.
Malaysia Nature Society president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail said it is “about time” for the legal system to implement higher penalties as current penalties are too low.
“Besides higher penalties and fines, more public education and regular monitoring are needed, ” said Ahmad, who added that demand and supply are both fuelling wildlife crime, thus there is a need for more education and public awareness to break the cycle.
“Stricter legislation is a good deterrent, but often times, the ones who are punished are the foot soldiers, and not the local masterminds who remain elusive, ” said a conservationist who declined to be named.
“At the end of the day, it is the local middleman who is running the illicit trade. They do not care what happens to their foot soldiers, ” he said, adding that the poachers are usually from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
He said that while these recommendations are good, whether or not they will be implemented remains to be seen.
“Recommendations for tighter firearm licence conditions and hunting permits have been on the discussion board for years, ” he added.
In Sarawak, there is chatter that certain pet shops are actually a front for wildlife traffickers to sell exotic animals, while some shops also serve as slaughterhouses for customers with a taste for wild game.
There is no shortage of whispers about how certain rich or powerful personalities are keeping these animals as pets, even in homes located in cities and towns.
Other than brick-and-mortar outlets, there are also markets and vans dabbling in the illicit wildlife trade, especially in Miri.
Malaysian Nature Society Miri branch chairman Musa Musbah said poaching of protected animals and rare birds are happening even in urban Miri.
“In the Kuala Baram wetlands (15km north of Miri city), poachers are having a field day hunting and trapping wildlife blatantly.
“Despite MNS campaigns against poaching, there is a serious lack of enforcement, ” he said.
However, Sarawak Forestry Corporation CEO Zolkipli Mohamad Aton said his agency is serious in curbing the trade.
“We have seized hundreds of wildlife from these pet shops and markets, and we will be relentless in stopping them, ” he said.
In Sabah, state Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga agrees with the proposal to impose caning to deter would-be poachers and smugglers.
Tuuga, whose department has been grappling with poachers and traffickers eyeing Sabah’s wildlife, said the lack of manpower and intelligence is hindering the fight against the criminals.
A local conservationist, who declined to be named, said the move is “timely and fully supported”.
“It is tantamount to raping Malaysia’s natural resources, ” he said.
He added that harsher sentences will act as a deterrent for someone who is contemplating wildlife poaching or smuggling.
However, Danau Girang Field Centre director Dr Benoit Goossens, who has been involved in the Sabah’s conservation efforts, felt that caning is unnecessary, if not inhumane, and argued that a jail term must be mandatory.
“You possess (wildlife), you are prosecuted, you go to jail if found guilty. Whipping is a form of torture... I disagree with that.
“Send them to jail. Nobody wants to go to jail, ” said Goossens, who added that Sabah’s uphill battle against poachers and smugglers is due to a lack of manpower on the ground, and it is something the Wildlife Department is trying to solve.
“We also lack intelligence on such criminals.”