EXCLUSIVE: R.AGE undercover investigations expose international smuggling ring for endangered pangolins

PETALING JAYA: A global investigative report has alleged that as many as a dozen Malaysian policemen are playing a key part in the international smuggling trade for pangolins, the endangered species widely considered the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Those allegedly involved range from traffic policemen to high-level officers in the Malaysian Border Security Agency (Aksem), and are mostly based in Kedah, where the Bukit Kayu Hitam border checkpoint sits on the border between Malaysia and Thailand.

Pangolins are nocturnal anteaters whose scales are highly sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine, while its meat is consumed as a status-symbol delicacy.

Due to high demand for its meat and scales, pangolins are often poached and sold to syndicates, who then smuggle the animal across borders to China and other markets. PHOTO: Elroi Yee/R.AGEDue to high demand for its meat and scales, pangolins are often poached and sold to syndicates, who then smuggle the animal across borders to China and other markets. PHOTO: Elroi Yee/R.AGE

The Global Environmental Reporting Collective’s (GERC) investigations, spanning 13 countries with R.AGE as its Malaysian reporting partner, not only uncovered the bribing of border officers but of instances where the rogue enforcement officers actually assisted in smuggling of wildlife and other goods.

READ: Trafficked to Extinction - GERC’s global investigative report on pangolin smuggling

One policeman confessed to being an operative in a smuggling syndicate. He claimed other colleagues - including his supervisors - are aware of the illegal trade.

“We have to ask our supervisors first (when they are offered money by the smuggling syndicates). If they are okay, we ask our teammates. Some might agree, some might not.

“If our team is not okay, (the smugglers) will try asking other teams, since we change according to our shifts, ” said the policeman.

This suggestion of corruption is corroborated by undercover interviews with a smuggler, who claimed the syndicate has “kowtim (taken care of) everyone from the Anti Smuggling Unit all the way to the top”.

The Anti Smuggling Unit is now known as Aksem.

The smuggler, who operates in Kedah, also alleged the involvement of policemen who carried out the smuggling of a variety of contraband, including pangolins and fireworks.

Relatively little is known about the elusive pangolin, as their shy and nocturnal nature makes it difficult for researchers to study them. PHOTO: Elroi Yee / R.AGERelatively little is known about the elusive pangolin, as their shy and nocturnal nature makes it difficult for researchers to study them. PHOTO: Elroi Yee / R.AGE

Based on court records made available through sources close to the investigations, as many as three policemen have been arrested in possession of pangolins near the Thai border, including one officer who was arrested twice.

All these officers have worked, or are still working, at the Kedah state police headquarters (IPK Kedah), investigations show.

Evidence shown to journalists by a government source close to ongoing investigations reveal a further nine policemen connected to the smuggling ring, most of whom are based in Kedah.

Based on information from the policeman, it would appear that corrupt Malaysian policemen form a crucial link in the global illegal pangolin trade, specifically between Indonesia and Thailand.

“The goods (pangolins) come from Indonesia, ” said the policeman, adding that the pangolins “do not go to Thailand, Thailand is just a transit”.

“(It goes to) China. It is trafficked to Thailand, then enters Laos. After Laos, China.”

Officials in Thailand offered corroborating information on the smuggling routes.

“Preventing and suppressing pangolin smuggling requires international cooperation, ” said Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, director of the Wild Fauna and Flora Protection Division of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Thailand.

“If our measures are strong but our neighbours face smuggling, the problem cannot be solved, ” he continued, adding that Thai and Malaysian authorities have been working together.

Pangolins smuggled via this route are mostly live pangolins, indicating they are meant for consumption.

Live pangolins are known to fetch a higher price. A restaurant chef based in Malaysia who once served pangolins to Chinese tourists told undercover journalists that he would slit the throat of the live pangolin in front of the customer, then use its blood in the cooking.

Information from the policeman also indicate that pangolin smuggling in Malaysia operates almost like an open market, indicating an established trade. Criminal syndicates compete against each other for price and market share.

“When goods (pangolins) arrive from Indonesia, the towkays bid for them, ” said the policeman, using the local slang for “boss”.

“So how much can you pay? One offers RM310 per kg (around US$74 per kg), another offers RM320 per kg, and another offers RM350 per kg. So the one who offers the highest will win.”

However, the policeman said rival syndicates often sabotage the bid winner by leaking information to other enforcement agencies, such as the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan).

A pangolin rescued from an online wildlife trader during GERC investigations. The pangolin was later released into the jungle by Perhilitan. - PHOTO: Elroi Yee / R.AGEA pangolin rescued from an online wildlife trader during GERC investigations. The pangolin was later released into the jungle by Perhilitan. - PHOTO: Elroi Yee / R.AGE

When approached by journalists to comment on the allegations of corruption among officers in his ranks, IPK Kedah police chief Datuk Zainuddin Yaacob said the police are “taking this matter seriously”, and that action will be taken.

“If [police officers] are charged or convicted, then we can take action by suspending them from duty. If they are convicted under criminal charges, then there is no option but to discharge them from service.”

When interviewed about strategies to curb pangolin smuggling, Perhilitan director general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim admitted his agency faces a difficult task.

“This is not an easy job, because it involves international syndicates, ” he said.

“At present, Perhilitan is in the process of amending the Wildlife Conservation Act, to combat this smuggling. The amendment is to increase the penalties. For example, smuggling totally protected species (like pangolins) will incur a maximum of RM1,000,000 and 10 years’ prison.”

The law currently allows a fine of up to RM100,000 and/or three years’ prison.

Abdul Kadir added the amendments are expected to be tabled in Parliament in October or November this year..

“We need this (amendment) as a deterrent, otherwise these people won’t stop, ” he said, citing a number of past cases where smugglers simply paid the fines and continued trading.

.On Sept 4, Inspector-General of Police Datuk Seri Abdul Hamid Bador said wildlife poachers and smugglers could be whipped under tougher laws proposed to combat the scourge.

He said he would submit the recommendation to the police’s Legal Affairs Division for tougher penalties to combat poaching and wildlife trafficking in the country.

“There are at least 12 Acts protecting wildlife, forest and marine life, but drastic measures and actions need to be taken, or we will lose them," he had said.
RELATED: Hefty fines no deterrent for pangolin smugglers

The GERC report, released today, reveals an international pangolin trafficking trade fueled by overwhelming demand from China, driving the animal to the brink of extinction in countries as far away as Malaysia, Indonesia and Cameroon, among others. Read the full report at pangolinreports.com/globalstory.

About the pangolin

Pangolins are a species of nocturnal scaly anteaters, found in tropical and subtropical regions. Of the eight known species of pangolins, one is endemic to Malaysia - the Sunda pangolin (scientific name Manis javanica). Its name is derived from the Malay word “pengguling”, meaning “one who rolls up”. However, Malays call the animal “tenggiling”.

It uses its scales as a defence mechanism, rolling up into a tight ball when threatened, with the scales forming an armour that is almost impenetrable by predators. Even lions have been recorded unsuccessful in penetrating this scaly shield.

It has a long, sticky tongue that it uses to feed on ants and termites.

Although pangolin scales are chemically similar to human fingernails, many believe the scales have medicinal properties, and use it in traditional Chinese medicine. This belief fuels an unsustainable demand for pangolins, predominantly from China.

While there are no available population statistics on pangolins in Malaysia, the sheer number confiscated from smugglers indicate the species is in danger of being wiped out. Globally, the International Union of Conservation and Nature (IUCN) estimate that over 1.5 million pangolins have been trafficked since 2004.

Stay tuned for the full investigative report by R.AGE. Follow them at fb.com/thestarRAGE for updates.

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