RECENT calls have been made to allow wild boar meat to be sold once more in Sarawak. The rationale behind the current law and the protections it gives to rural communities have not changed, however. In 1998, Sarawak’s Wild Life Protection Ordinance, passed unanimously by the Dewan Undangan Negeri, permitted natives on NCR (native customary rights) land to hunt for their own subsistence but made it illegal to sell wild-hunted mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
These provisions of the ordinance were based on many years of research in different communities across rural Sarawak. The research showed that many such people still depend on hunting wildlife for their own subsistence but that, as in other tropical rainforests, the productivity of the resource is very limited (unlike tropical grasslands – picture herds of antelope in Africa).
Subsistence hunting of wild boar by local communities with native customary rights is usually sustainable and provides people with a healthy protein diet. However, hunting at a level to support any commercial trade exceeds the natural productivity of the resource, rendering that trade unsustainable – with a high likelihood that populations will decline, potentially rapidly.
This immediately deprives rural communities of a vital resource that they depend on for subsistence, when they often have few or no economically viable alternatives. This is the reason why the Dewan included provisions in the law that conserve wildlife resources for the people who most need them for their diets.
The presence of healthy populations of wild boar in particular not only provides healthy diets for many rural dwellers but also provides a fall-back to others in times of hardship. People who lose their urban or other jobs can always go back to the longhouse and turn to traditional farming, hunting, and fishing.
Sarawak was one of the first places in the world to pass such visionary legislation (“you can hunt it but you can’t sell it”), and it has since become a model for other countries anxious to conserve their wildlife while supporting the livelihoods and cultures of rural communities. For Sarawak to undo this would undermine the well-being of its subsistence hunting communities and damage the wildlife populations and ecological functioning of its forests.
Moreover, the world is now realising the potentially devastating risks of emerging infectious diseases from commercial wildlife markets for human consumption. This is how Ebola spread to humans in Africa, and likely the way that Covid-19 spread to humans in China.
Recent research has shown that the risk of a wild animal carrying harmful pathogens increases along the trade chain from the time it leaves the forest until it reaches commercial markets.
Increasingly, the global community is calling for an end to all commercial wildlife markets for human consumption, especially for mammals and birds, as a way to minimise the risk of the next pandemic.Hence, Sarawak maintaining its ban on all commercial sales of wild meat provides a laudable way for it to conserve its wildlife, maintain the healthy diets and cultures of native communities, and maximise the future health of the entire population of the state.
ELIZABETH L. BENNETT , Vice-President, Species Conervation, Wildlife Conservation SocietyNote: The letter writer is a recipient of the Merdeka Award for Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia.