When answers raise more questions

When we are promised that enforcement action will be taken to tackle wildlife crime, we deserve to know what’s really going on instead of being fed a non-answer.

WITHOUT a doubt, one of the top 10 favourite words bandied around by the authorities is “enforcement”.

I can see why it is so favoured. Doesn’t it convey reassuring confidence that the full might of the law is going to come down hard on wrongdoers?

But enforcement is a much more meaningful word than that. It speaks of concrete action being taken to stop the spread of something which is bad or wrong.

When we are promised that enforcement action will be taken, I think we deserve to know what’s really going on instead of being fed a non-answer – which is to say, a nice, polite, reassuring answer that really doesn’t answer any of our questions.

Fresh in the public’s mind is illegal wildlife trade kingpin Anson Wong, whether he is really back in business and what the authorities are doing about it.

Burning questions have arisen in the wake of Al-Jazeera’s 101 East’s The Return of the Lizard King documentary, which provides substantial evidence that he might just have returned to his old habits.

Wong’s house was shown to have an enclosure housing African Serval cats, while the worker at Rona Wildlife, a shop lot housing exotic wildlife, named him as his boss.

What was the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ (Perhilitan) reply? The gist of it was that checks showed Wong was not the registered owner of Rona Wildlife, nor was he listed as a shareholder or board member.

“Physical inspection and compliance checks on Rona Wildlife’s premises have been conducted regularly,” it assured the public in a Nov 29 statement.

And that was basically it. Absolutely no mention of whether it would launch an investigation into Wong’s alleged involvement with Rona Wildlife based on the worker’s claims, or whether enforcement officers had visited his residence.

But Wong is just the tip of the illegal wildlife trade iceberg in Malaysia, and forms just one of several questions of effective enforcement in this area.

Dr Chris Shepherd, regional director of wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic South-East Asia, says there is actually no reason for Malaysia to warrant its reputation as an illegal hub for wildlife trade.

It isn’t as though we have weak legislation. In fact, our much-praised Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 is one of the strongest laws in the region that deals with wildlife crime.

There’s also the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, designed to help Malaysia fulfil our obligations under the Con­vention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network.

But then, why are we still seeing large volumes of illegal reptiles moving through Malaysia into Thailand and Indonesia, Madagascar tortoises coming in regularly by plane or car and tonnes of ivory passing through our ports?

Given this, Dr Shepherd thinks that stamping out wildlife crime just isn’t high enough on the priority list.

“The tools Malaysia has to fight wildlife crime are really good. But the hammer is only as good as the carpenter who wields it,” he says.

So, what is not being done? For starters, we seem to be not arresting people high up enough on the food chain to make a dent in the illegal wildlife trade.

It is well and good to capture the wildlife trade mules, but they are, as Dr Shepherd puts it, “the absolute bottom of the food chain”.

The question is whether they are being used as a means to zero in on the kingpins of the trade, of which Anson Wong is just one of many.

Another serious problem is that the law is unfortunately not being used to its fullest extent to punish those who have been caught.

The most obvious example is the February case of wildlife trader Mohd Nor Shahrizam Nasir, who will serve just two years’ jail because his sentences run concurrently.

He wasn’t even fined, despite the law providing a mandatory fine of at least RM100,000.

We’re talking about a man who was caught with eight tiger skins, 22 bags of whole tiger bones and nine African elephant tusks.

So, the final question is, are we too late in picking up our momentum against the illegal wildlife trade?

Dr Shepherd is optimistic. “I strongly believe Malaysia has a real opportunity to protect its own wildlife, one that has already been missed by many neighbouring countries.”

So as we move towards 2014, I join my voice with many other Malaysians urgently calling for greater transparency, accountability and action from the authorities.

Please stop using “enforcement” as a mere catchword and actually start walking the talk before more and more of our wildlife, including our Malayan tiger and Malayan pangolin, live on only in our books.

> Isabelle believes that action, and not talk, is what wins hearts and earns respect. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Isabelle Lai


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