Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wildlife Smuggling In Malaysia

I found an article in one of the local newspaper named The Sun regarding the issues of wildlife smuggling in Malaysia

This is an interesting article which is an interview with the TRAFFIC Director, Azrina Abdullah.

I will not talk further about this but please read through this interviews between the Director and Karen Arukesamy of The Sun.

Tell us about your organisation.

Traffic was set up in the 1970s, after the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is an international convention of which Malaysia is one of its members. This convention enables countries to cooperate in the monitoring of the international trade of plants and animals, including local wildlife species. Traffic is a joint programme with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and International Union for Conservation of Nature. We monitor both legal and illegal wildlife trade including plants. The Southeast Asia team started off with only three people in its Kuala Lumpur office which was set up in 1991. Today we have expanded to 25 personnel within the region – KL, Hanoi, Bangkok and Jakarta. We are the biggest Traffic office in the world and the only NGO that has a memorandum of understanding with the Cites secretariat to develop training material and provide information and resources on the wildlife trade.

Every so often, we hear reports of wildlife shipments being confiscated or seized, just how bad is this trade in Malaysia or the region?

Malaysia has the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which was a good start compared to other countries, which did not have such laws earlier. Despite the Act and Cites Act passed in 2007, we are seeing an increase in the illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia. If you look at sales – I’m not saying that the trade of all species but some have gone up. The sales of pangolin, for example, have gone up significantly. It is the most popular species that is smuggled, especially to China in frozen form for the meat trade and the traditional medicine market which uses its scales. You cannot breed pangolins or keep them as pets.

Hence, with the illegal trade itself, it is a worrying trend in Malaysia and nearby countries. First, we have an efficient transport network and good ports, that in itself is an advantage for the smugglers. Basically it facilitates, indirectly, a lot of smuggling because you don’t expect the enforcement agency to scan or check every cargo that passes through Port Klang, for example.

What animals are protected in Malaysia?

According to the Perhilitan website, in Peninsular Malaysia, there are 740 local species and 1,856 exotic species, which are listed under Cites and protected under the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 (Act 76). There are two categories of protection – "protected" and "totally protected". (see full list at http://www.wildlife.gov.my/)

What made Malaysia not just one of the top 10 global hubs for wildlife trafficking but also a harvest and transit point?

Yes, we are among the top 10 smuggling hubs together with the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and the United States. Vietnam is also catching up.

As for the harvest point … it is because Southeast Asia is rich in bio-diversity. Recent seizures of tigers, fresh water turtles and pangolins reflect their abundance. They are not from outside but harvested in Malaysia.

Pangolins have a zero quota and are not for trade even though under Appendix II of the convention you can trade in them. Yet, you still find people trying to smuggle it because of the high demand and value of its meat.

But you do see a lot of species like fresh water turtles being heavily harvested. It again goes back to our good infrastructure and geographical location in the centre of the region. We have got one of the best infrastructures in the region and that makes it easy for the smugglers to transport the animals.

We have seen more reports of seizures at sea, especially in Johor, and at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Penang International Airport. However, we have not seen many seizures in Penang lately, we do not know if they are not reported or whether Perhilitan has not released the records of their seizures.

Are there buyers in Malaysia?

Yes, there are Malaysian buyers. In addition, there is also a new trend – trading through the Internet, and the buyers are both Malaysians and foreigners. There are a number of Malaysian websites that sell rare and endangered species. For example, the Madagascar tortoise is being sold widely through the Internet and there is no way of tracing the sellers because most of the time the information on their sites is insufficient to show if they are individuals or companies and their contact numbers are not registered.

Can you tell us how some of the smuggling is done?

Some of the popular methods include strapping birds eggs to the body, coiling snakes into stockings, hiding reptile eggs in clothing and stuffing birds into plastic tubes. Most of the time the most creative smugglers are not Malaysians. But there have been many cases where the Malaysian smugglers stacked up the legal load of dangerous animals like snakes, or the ones that bite, on the top of the box and hide the illegal and less dangerous ones at the bottom.
So, there is no way the Customs officers are going to put their hands into the box, although it is their duty to check. They are supposed to check but if you look at the quantity of cargo and containers and the number of items in them, how do you check them all?

Even with frozen fish, they pack the legal meat on top and illegal meat in the bottom. The methods are often the same.

There are ways of checking if the enforcement officers go through every single box or cargo. I mean it’s not impossible but it is time consuming and the items have to be sent for lab testing. The procedures are tedious with the amount of paper work involved. Not that I am defending them and saying that they need to get rid of paper work, it is their job to protect the wildlife but the lack of manpower and resources often come in the way.

Recently, there was a report about a man caught with live pigeons stuffed into each leg of the tights he was wearing under his trousers.

A few years ago, there was this woman who was caught at an Australian airport; she was wearing a huge skirt and when she was passing through the Customs, one of the officers saw that her skirt was moving, and when they checked, they found she had sewn pockets on the skirt to hide little bags of live fish.

The funny ones, tend to be in Thailand, going through the airport or up to Laos or to the borders.

Who are those involved? Are they collectors, businessmen or criminals?

It depends. Most are mules who do not know who the buyers are or where the item will end up. Some of those caught with wild orchids are collectors. There were even researchers who posed as tourists, and tried to smuggle wild orchids and seeds from Kota Kinabalu Park and got caught at the airport. Even ordinary people buy animal body parts for medicine but they do not know these are smuggled items and it is the same with pets, people don’t really know some of the animals they buy in the pet stores may be smuggled animals, especially when they are rare.

Why do you think smugglers are willing to go through so much trouble?

The risk is low and the profits are very high. If someone were caught for drug trafficking, the maximum penalty would be death. But when someone is found guilty of wildlife trafficking or smuggling, the maximum they would get is probably a few hundred ringgit fine. Another important factor is that the burden of proof is on the prosecution to show that certain products contain protected species’ parts. Sometimes the smugglers are just fined RM50 or RM60.

What are the most easily smuggled animals?

It depends on how creative the smugglers are and – not that I am encouraging people – reptiles, especially tortoises, are one of the easiest to smuggle because at a certain temperature, you can easily bundle them up. The Madagascar tortoises are popular.

Where do smugglers get these animals from?

Selangor is one of the top illegal harvesting points in the peninsula for fresh water turtles. The surrounding states are also high on the list. We also see a lot of wildlife going to Johor and even KL, but it depends on what the wildlife will be used for, decorative items, food, pets or medicines.
What is the best way to curb this illegal trade?

It boils down to the police, Customs and Perhilitan (Wildlife and National Parks Department) ensuring that the provisions in the law are fully used and the judges are not ignorant of the seriousness of the issue. There have been many cases where the prosecutors pushed for the maximum penalty in the Protection of Wildlife Act but the judge or magistrate did not understand the seriousness of the crime. They don’t take it seriously. Usually, it’s a small fine and jail terms are rare. For example, the man caught in Kelantan with a frozen tiger was only jailed a day and fined RM7,000. We have been pushing for a review of the law since 1998. The government said the law was reviewed last year but I don’t know when it will be presented to Parliament and what the new provision are.

Do you think Malaysia has addressed this problem effectively?

To say that nothing has been done is not accurate. We need to also look at the challenges faced by the enforcement agencies. Governments tend to say that they do not have enough resources, budgets for manpower and equipment but if you look at the Wildlife Protection Act and Cites Act, the Customs and police can play a role in helping Perhilitan to seize smuggled wildlife items.
You can see collaborations in some seizures but not enough to act as a deterrent to smugglers. The police and customs have powers to take action on the smugglers, however, we don’t see it being done effectively.

That is one reason why Southeast Asia is one of the main players in this trade. The police, Customs, Cites and the judiciary should work closely with each other in combating the illegal wildlife trade.

How effective is the Protection of Wildlife Act?

The Act should be reviewed as it is outdated and has many loopholes. There are some provisions in the Act, which could not be revealed, and that alone has hampered the implementation of the law. It doesn’t serve as a deterrent to curb the problem and the lack of awareness and knowledge among law enforcers on the subject is yet another problem. The penalties are too low to act as a deterrent. Many offenders get away with a compound.

How many cases have been solved (over the last 10 years)?

Perhilitan solved a remarkable 6,587 wildlife trade cases from 2005 till January this year. Some 44 cases were taken to court. The department also seized 917 owls in Muar last November and 319 in Kuantan in January.

It conducted checks on pet shops under Ops Sayang and the premises of taxidermists and leather hide sellers under Ops 49 and Ops Kulit, last year.

Officers from its headquarters raided a house in Muar last November, where nine "totally protected" and four "protected" wildlife species were found in a freezer. The suspect pleaded not guilty and bail was set at RM19,000. The same suspect was apprehended in 2004 for having 182 pangolins and 1.3kg of pangolin scales. He was fined RM7,500. The estimated value of the seizures is RM86,000.

Officers also raided a store in Segamat, Johor, last November where 7,093 clouded monitor lizards with an estimated weight of 35 tons were confiscated. The black market value is estimated at RM50-80 a kilo.

The department’s officers seized more than RM3 million worth of live and dead exotic wildlife. The seizures followed raids at two locations in Johor. In other raids in the state, more than 13 species of protected animals were seized. Among the animals found were 7,000 clouded monitor lizards, 1,000 owls, pangolins, crested serpent eagles, pythons, mousedeer, Malayan porcupine, wild pigs and bear body parts.

Traffic has launched an online petition to push for a revision of the present law. What has the support from the public been?

The petition asks for changes to the protection of wildlife. The response is disappointing. We have only about 3,700 signatures altogether and our target is about 100,000. It’s been nearly a year and if you look at the list of people who have signed up, a lot of them are from outside Malaysia so we have a lot of foreigners signing in. One of the things about the public is that if they are not affected then it is not their problem. If a tiger is killed, how is it going to affect me and my family? It’s got nothing to do with my family so I’m not going to sign it or they don’t realise its importance. So it’s the understanding of the whole ecosystem that is lacking in Malaysia.

And I think environmental education is missing from the syllabus. So you see children, even my nieces, who have pets but they don’t understand where the animals came from and their habitat. So it’s just a matter of going to the pet store, coming back with an animal and playing around with it. I remember when I was a kid I used to go around the drains in Section 14 with some of my friends after school looking for tadpoles and tilapias – we were actually monitoring some of the tadpoles to see how they were growing.

It’s so different now in terms of the education before because I remember in school all those years ago, teachers made sure we went out of the class and walked around the school just to see what was around the school. If you ask any kid, "What’s the name of this plant?", they probably won’t know.

Some of the NGOs, for example Malaysian Nature Society and WWF, are doing a great job in educating the public on plants and animals and they’ve been doing it for years but you still see a lot of people not appreciating what is around them. This also reflects on our development: builders and contractors are given permits to develop just about anything. So you wonder who needs to be educated – the children or the adults.

What are the programmes prepared by Traffic to create awareness among people especially the younger generation?

We give talks in schools. We have collaborated with Perhilitan to come up with a national tiger action plan which was launched last year. We go to the villages and towns to talk about the importance of conservation and we encourage villagers to report to Perhilitan or any of these NGOs if they see snares or suspected poachers. For adults, our main focus has been enforcement agencies because we feel we need to sensitise enforcement officers.
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