Tougher laws needed to deal with online wildlife trade, says NGO

Animals like the Malayan sun bear are sold over social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, says a conservation society. (Sam Tippets/Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre pic)

PETALING JAYA: Wildlife conservation group Monitor Conservation Research Society (Monitor) has called for harsher laws to deal with advertising the sale of protected animals online.

The NGO’s founder Chris Shepherd said the penalty for those convicted of putting up such advertisements should be the same as that for those found guilty of physically trading in these animals.

Currently, the penalty for wildlife trading depends on the species, nature of the offence and quantity, with offenders being either slapped with a fine or imprisoned, or both.

There are no laws to deal with online illegal wildlife trade, although the government said last year it was mulling an amendment to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 – which Shepard said was among the strongest in the region – to deal with this.

Until then, he said, traders will take advantage of this loophole.

He said protected wildlife, like the sun bear, are sold over social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp.

The authorities know who the sellers are, he said, but because it is not an offence to advertise protected wildlife for sale, they have had to invest a massive amount of resources to try and nab the criminals.

“If the law is amended, the authorities won’t have to waste their already limited resources, and can focus instead on keeping wildlife protected,” he told FMT.

Shepherd said the nature of online trade made the arrest of key players “very difficult”.

This is because sellers rarely have the animals in possession, while payments are made through bank transfers. The purchased animals are delivered by post, outstation bus drivers, or other low-level delivery options.

“The more sophisticated the trader, the more careful the deal that is made.”

Compounding matters, he said, is the fact that the authorities are “understaffed and under-resourced”.

Shepherd said wildlife criminals are well aware of the limitations of the law. Once the traders know that the authorities are on to them, they create new accounts or groups or move to different platforms.

“They just keep moving and changing, and the nature of social media makes it convenient for criminals to keep their identities or locations anonymous.”

He said the arrest of smugglers and confiscation of wildlife “mean little” if they are not followed by strong prosecution.

Maximum sentences, he said, would deter repeat offenders.

“The judiciary has a major role to play, and we have seen an increased awareness that cases involving wildlife are not dismissed as trivial,” he said.