IN conjunction with Earth Day today, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) would like to highlight the fact that at least one-fifth of mammals found in Malaysia is facing extinction. That is according to data provided by the World Bank in 2015, which revealed that in 2014 as many as 70 species out of 336 mammals were in danger. This special classification ranks Malaysia seventh in the world for the most animals in danger of extinction, while in South-East Asia it is second only to Indonesia, which counts 184 species at risk.
Malaysia is the most dangerous country in the world for species already at risk. The continuous emergence of wildlife crime news in the media warrants serious attention from the government and relevant authorities. From tigers being snared by poachers and elephants becoming roadkill, from primates and sun bears being killed and illegally traded to turtles threatened by the consumption of eggs – the list of problems our wildlife face just goes on and on.
Elephants are seriously endangered because of endless human encroachment into their habitat. Once rampages occur in villages, the animals are characterised as rogue elephants when, rightfully, the land was originally theirs. In cases of villages, farms and plantations closing in on wild habitats, the wildlife are always the losers.
In the past seven years, 22 baby elephants without their mothers have been rescued with half of the babies dying. They become orphans because their mothers may have become victims of crimes committed by farmers and plantation workers. Just recently two pygmy elephants died near a plantation area in Sukau and Tawau in Sabah.
Our tiger population has dwindled to fewer than 150 animals with the population surviving only throughout the Central Forest Spine in Peninsular Malaysia. As a commodity, the tiger is shredded with vulture-like efficiency: skin, whiskers, penis, tail, bones and claws all parcelled up for open sale in markets throughout Asia.
Though it has since postponed the decision, China has announced it is considering lifting the ban on rhino horns and tiger bones for use in traditional Chinese medicine even though they have no therapeutic value whatsoever. If the ban is lifted, it will have devastating consequences for tigers globally. China would be creating a huge legal market for poached animal parts. This move could be a death sentence for both rhinos and tigers. It will inevitably stimulate demand and the trafficking of such products.
The carnage continues with turtles falling victims to the unscrupulous. The butchering of 100 endangered sea turtles in October 2017 on an island off Semporna, Sabah, drew worldwide attention. An estimated 100 turtle skeletons were found scattered in the bushes near the beaches of Kg Pantau-Pantau, Kg Amboh-Ambohang, Kg Sampolan at Pulau Bum-Bum off Semporna. These were believed to be the result of poaching activities carried out by the nomadic Palau or Bajau Laut (sea gypsies) who come to the area occasionally.
Sharing a similar fate are shark species; there have been viral photos showing a number of sharks without fins on sale at a wet market in Sandakan, Sabah.
Our very shy mammal, the pangolin, is going the way of the dodo. The Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (Traffic) warns of an impending disaster for pangolins, as over one million of them were poached in the last decade.
Traffic reported that about 23 tonnes of pangolins were seized in air transport between 2009 and 2017 and in 2018, 40.8 tonnes of pangolin products were seized. They are the top target of traffickers and poachers now since they are perceived to have medicinal value and their meat is considered to be a delicacy. Despite seizures and tip-offs, the poaching crisis continues unabated.
In fact, the illegal trade in wildlife is becoming a sophisticated crime with syndicates employing ruthless tactics to brutally slaughter rhinos, elephants and other animals. The problem is not only confined to Malaysia alone but is happening throughout Asean member countries. The real tragedy is that the few species mentioned above do not even begin to tell the story of the ongoing destruction. The one thing that all of these species have in common is that the cause of their extinction is human beings. Human activity now impacts heavily everywhere and we are using a variety of sophisticated industrial technologies to destroy other life forms in vast numbers.
In many cases these life forms are hunted to extinction as a result of some misguided commercial imperative. Whether it is for food (such as species of fish), raw materials (such as the ivory of elephant tusks) or some delusional belief in their aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities (such as the horn of a rhinoceros), they are killed with sophisticated technologies such as guns and fishing nets against which animals have no evolutionary defence.
An example is the sea turtle.
All sea turtles are threatened due to poaching and hunting caused by a demand for their shells, meat and eggs – there is an absurd belief that the eggs possess aphrodisiac elements.
The other aspect that is driving species extinct is the systemic destruction of habitats – forests, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, mangroves – in our endless search for more wild spaces we can put to human use, whether it be residential, commercial, mining, farming or military use.
An isolated limestone hill called Gunung Kanthan in the north-west of Peninsular Malaysia is the only known home to a new species of snail recently discovered. It is found in the corner of a limestone quarry run by global cement giant Lafarge.
Quarries that have yet to be blown apart to provide material for cement manufacture are a fertile place for species. They are sources of three new kinds of plant, a trapdoor spider, snail and new kind of bent-toed gecko. Given the very restricted known distributions of these species, all of them are presumed to be at critical risk of global extinction, and all face a threat from further quarrying.
Relatively speaking, we pay a lot of attention to big and colourful species but the species that are not heard of or are less exotic need to be valued too. Frogs, for instance (from a limited human perspective), eat malarial mosquitoes – and now mosquito populations are increasing as frog populations decline. Even farmers have had to resort to using more chemicals in their fields to keep pests at bay, a job undertaken previously by hungry frogs.
Flying insects have really important ecological functions, and their numbers matter a lot. Flies, moths and butterflies are as important as bees for many flowering plants, including some food crops. They provide food for many animals, such as birds, bats, some mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Flies, beetles and wasps are also predators and decomposers, controlling pests and cleaning up the place.
Conservation NGOs have repeatedly warned that destructive activities have taken a serious toll on our wildlife yet little has been – is being – done to address the critical situation.
However, not all our destruction is as visible as our vanishing rainforests and the iconic species that vanish with them. Far more common and invisible is our destruction of the soil with organic pollutants associated with industrial chemicals.
Thousands of synthetic chemicals, often in the form of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and other poisons, destroy the soil in which we grow our food by reducing nutrients and killing microbes. Such poisons deplete the soil and also kill many beneficial insects, such as bees, that play a part in plant pollination and growth.
With wildlife and even the very soil so threatened, it is important to appreciate what may soon be gone and be reminded of the importance of protecting it.
S.M. MOHAMED IDRIS
Sahabat Alam Malaysia