FMT LETTER: From SM Mohd Idris, via e-mail
Devastating reports of wildlife poaching has once again surfaced in the media. Poaching is seen as a perennial problem as the report also illustrates that environmental crimes are among the most serious and profitable forms of transnational organised crime in Asia.
Many countries in the region are richer in natural resources than they are in their capacity to protect them. Growing local demand, as well as growing export markets, have placed great strain on resources unique to the region. Criminal opportunists have placed the global environmental heritage in jeopardy.
These criminal networks operate with no respect to borders. Globalisation permits trafficking groups to operate seamlessly across borders. The Government needs to understand the nature and dimensions of the threat, and this is no easy task. The supply of wildlife is not infinite and its trade requires tight and rigorous regulation.
While the illegal trade in wildlife is a major threat to biodiversity, it also provides a significant source of profit for criminals. By distorting and undercutting legitimate commerce, it can cause economic and social disruption. Furthermore, the high level of corruption underpinning this illegal activity poses a serious threat to national governance.
China with its population growth and burgeoning affluence has led to rising demand for exotic and luxury products including wildlife products. Being the region’s largest economy and the largest consumer market for wildlife either as food or as traditional medicines, it has posed a threat to many iconic species like tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, and pangolins well-known globally. Yet, there are many more mammals, reptiles, marine species and plants that have declined drastically. Unfortunately, for these species, there is very limited public awareness. Consequently, protection is weak.
Open borders and better infrastructure have both permitted inflows of poachers and traders to areas where wildlife can be sourced easily. Wildlife is transported by land, air or sea in different ways. Traffickers often use the same routes as legal importers, but falsify certificates, exploit regulatory loopholes, take advantage of poor capacity in law enforcement agencies or obtain genuine documents corruptly.
Concealment methods are limited only by the relative bulk of shipments and the ingenuity of the smugglers. On airlines wildlife traffickers have been caught squeezing birds into tubes, packing animals like tiger cubs into hand luggage and hiding eggs in specifically designed clothing. By land, transportation is carried out in special hidden compartments in cars, vans and trucks, and by employing couriers to take larger loads across borders in separate and smaller containers.
The problem is further worsened with use of the internet, e-banking and efficient transport systems (new roads opening up in forested areas) give dealers and smugglers unprecedented access to new markets.
The wildlife trade is facilitated by the country’s major international transport hubs. Ivory trade into Thailand is an ongoing problem and the enforcement of the existing regulation has proven to be difficult. Once imported, illegal ivory from Africa is either re-exported or processed and passed off as local and legal products. The increase in sales of illegal wildlife on the internet and the mushrooming of smaller markets in provincial cities in the outskirts of Bangkok poses a challenge to law enforcement efforts.
In recent years, ivory hauls of one metric tonne or more have occurred with increasing frequency, suggesting the growing involvement of African-based but Asian run organised crime syndicates in the trade. Within Southeast Asia, large ivory seizures in Malaysia between 2010-2011 indicate that the country was a major trans-shipping hub in this chain. These shipments were likely bound for China.
Increasing wildlife trade is driving a broad range of wildlife species towards global extinction. Despite sounding the death knell for Malaysian wildlife the issue of poachers cannot be satisfactorily addressed if permanent forest reserves and protected areas that are critical to the sustainability of species continue to be degazetted for other land use purpose.
The Natural Resource Environment and State governments must work together in ensuring stringent protection at every level of environmentally sensitive areas that are home to our nation’s wildlife.
The writer is president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)