Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wildlife trade haven, uninterrupted

Tue, 27 Jul 2010
By Hilary Chiew

COMMENT Tiger in A’Famosa Resort exploited for commercial gain. Two women from Madagascar arrested at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) for smuggling more than 400 pieces of rare species from the island state off mainland Africa. An apparent criminal syndicate was busted with not only stolen cars but scores of protected birds and other mammals in a warehouse in the capital city.

These are very likely, pardon the cliché, the tip of the iceberg of the extent of wildlife abuse and trafficking in this country that constantly boasts of being one of the 12 mega biodiversity centres in the world.

And they all have one thing in common – they were not exposed by the Department of Wildlife and National Park (Perhilitan).

The exploit of A’Famosa was filmed by a young girl who was disgusted with the state of abuse the majestic cat was subjected to in a profit-driven outlet capitalising on the draw of the animal in the lunar calendar year of the tiger, no less.

The KLIA seizure was carried out by the Customs Department while the “mini zoo” discovery was purely accidental and opportunistic, piggy-backing on a police raid.

Sure, Perhilitan has some successful enforcement cases that it announced now and then through press conferences. And in no way am I belittling the efforts of its Wildlife Crime Unit.

However, seizure is one thing and bringing the matter to justice is another. Unfortunately, the latter is sorely lacking.

Tiger exploitation

Take the case of A’Famosa. Perhilitan said it is awaiting a statement from the videographer or whoever that posted the clip on popular video-sharing site YouTube before handing the investigation paper to the Attorney-General's Chambers.

Sound fair enough. Let’s just hope that it won’t be conveniently forgotten once the hype is gone.

Prior to the outcry generated by this YouTube posting that culminated in a protest outside the resort supported by local showbiz celebrities Rina Omar and Bernie Chan in late May, the same resort had also been criticised for capitalising on the species which is the animal in the Chinese zodiac for the 2010 lunar new year.

The YouTube video was evidence of such activities during the Chinese New Year judging from the background music.

At the same time, Saleng Zoo had also jumped on the bandwagon of the “roaring business”. It even ran a “tiger-for-loan” scheme for corporation or just anyone who is willing to pay a few thousands ringgit to temporarily “own” a cub for a few hours to do whatever with it as they pleased.

The zoo near Kulai, Johor, has been involved in a controversial tiger-breeding programme where the mortality rate of tiger cubs was high as well as being implicated in supplying cubs to other aspiring zoos and individual collectors; an activity that is not covered by its Special Permit as far as public knowledge is concerned.

But the zoo is unperturbed – it never fails to publicise the birth of its cubs, with an unabashed business sense. Somehow the births are timed perfectly for some festive celebration around the corner. And unsuspecting newspapers duly provide coverage, throwing in the patriotic act of boosting tourism for the state.

Permit to abuse

The issue begged a fundamental question – why are entities like A’Famosa, Saleng Zoo and Danga Bay Petting Zoo which are devoid of any conservation purposes allowed to keep totally protected animals like tigers?

In twisted logic fashion, these entities justified their utilisation of the animals for photography sessions as a financial source for feeding and upkeep of the animals.

Totally protected species like tigers, elephants and orangutans can only be kept with a document called Special Permit issued by Perhilitan. This document generally lasts for a year and could be suspended if conditions had been contravened by its holder. And this document is only approved by the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment upon favourable advice by Perhilitan.

This permit generally allowed its holder to import, export, confine and breed the animals. In the case of zoo operators, they are allowed to display but it is deafeningly silent on “extra” activities like being forced to participate in photo-prop or providing rides.

Technically-speaking, the A-G's Chambers may not be able to find any faults with these operators unless the charge is centred on cruelty to wildlife as provided for in the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972.

Section 92 (1) c reads: houses, confines or breeds any wild animal or wild bird in such a manner so as to cause it unnecessary pain or suffering including the housing, confining or breeding of any wild animal or wild bird in any cage, enclosure or hut which is not suitable for or conducive to the comfort or health of the wild animal or wild bird.

(The new law – Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 which was passed in the recent parliamentary session – is yet to come into force, hence does not apply to these cases.)

Given that complaints of animal cruelty against these three private outfits are not new, it is highly irresponsible of Perhilitan in continuing to renew the permits, not to mention that there were no suspensions.

In fact, the rather telling revelation from Saleng Zoo over the public uproar on tiger for photography session, was that it was ordered by Perhilitan to stop such activities “until further notice”.

According to Perhilitan’s published guidelines on zoo operation, it is desirable that public and private zoos are members of Mazpa (The Malaysian Zoological Park Association), which tried to promote good practices of animal-keeping entities. Saleng Zoo is not – yet it continues to exist in an apparent lawless situation.

A’Famosa has been implicated in orangutan smuggling in 2005. After a long investigation, mainly on DNA verification of species and not on the smuggling racket, a total of seven animals were repatriated to Sumatra.

A salient feature in this episode was the presence of a Special Permit issued by Perhilitan that explicitly enabled A’Famosa to import and hold orangutans.

The penalty – none, safe for the initial RM1,000 compound when the offence was first detected in 2000 by the department itself. However, Perhilitan as the management authority of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species did not seize and repatriate the animals until the matter was exposed by the media.

Smuggling haven

As for Perhilitan’s capability of solving trans-boundary smuggling like the hundreds of radiated tortoises from Madagascar or the earlier spate of Indian star tortoises, the results are appalling.

Save for some seizures, we hear nothing about the fate of the human couriers. Were they ever charged? What kind of information did the investigation yield?

Why were the two women not “allowed” to complete their mission in a “control delivery” fashion so that they could lead the enforcers to the ultimate smuggler? It’s baffling that after so many cases involving the syndicate adopting similar modus operandi, Perhilitan failed to institute such a simple Standard Operating Procedure. Training had been provided to agencies like Customs that are on the frontline of the war against wildlife trafficking by Perhilitan and the Asean-Wildlife Enforcement Network (Asean-WEN).

Malaysia has been a partner of the Aseanf-WEN since its launch in December 2005. The main task of the largest network of its kind is to strengthen enforcement through intelligence-sharing and to destroy the syndicate behind this crime against biodiversity and our shared natural heritage.

However, except for possibly some small fries (that also we are unsure) that are compounded or fined a few thousand ringgits at most, the syndicate bosses continue laughing to the bank.

Early this year, Malaysia's notorious image as a wildlife transit hub was splashed across the reputable National Geographic magazine. The shaming didn’t seem to bother the government much and hence possibly explain why neither the police nor the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (where reports had been filed by concerned animal rights groups) bothered to act.

Wildlife conservationists had long lamented that flora and fauna are last on the list of politicians and decision-makers as they don’t have a voice. Perhaps if only those animals have a right to vote every five years will the government sit up and listen.

While the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment claimed that a task force was set up to investigate the matter, it side-stepped the serious allegation of corruption within the highest order of Perhilitan. It is satisfied with the offer by the high-ranking officer, who was implicated with wildlife trader Penang-based Anson Wong in illegal wildlife trade, to institute legal redress in her personal capacity.

That approach is a bit odd and we are still waiting for the officer to follow through with her promise. And along with that, at stake is the integrity of Perhilitan, the ministry and the Malaysian government.

Nevertheless, following numerous expose on the abuse of the Special Permit, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Douglas Uggah had ordered that all applications are to be deliberated at the ministry level.

However, the ability of the ministry is doubted. Often, matters regarding wildlife are referred to Perhilitan by virtue that it is supposed to be the expert, custodian of wildlife management and no less enforcer of the law.

Loopholes remain

Finally, after 13 years, a new legislation governing wildlife was passed by Parliament early this month.

Some quarters celebrated. They were largely pleased that the penalty for several types of offences, particularly the one dealing with poaching and illegal trading, had been increased, and, therefore, it is assumed that these would have the desired deterrent effect.

The public is relieved and hopes to see the new law provide the promised bites.

Yet, if it has taken this long, one would expect a major overhaul to plug all the loopholes. It is disheartening to see that weaknesses in the old law are being repeated in the new law.

If you want to keep totally protected animals, you can still apply for a Special Permit. If you want to operate a zoo with highly endangered species, just apply too.

If in 1972, totally protected animals are still plentiful, in 2010 and beyond, these species are becoming extinct.

So, what’s the justification for importing, exporting, keeping and breeding these animals bearing in mind that all these activities are incentives for wildlife trafficking? Are we indirectly encouraging poaching?

Some quarters would like to see the passing of the bill as a breakthrough but the provision for Special Permit that is retained is suffice to burst the happy bubbles.

The battle against wildlife trafficking in Malaysia is not over; it just got tougher because by the next round of amendment, there is probably no totally protected species to defend.

Hilary Chiew is a socio-environmental researcher and freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur.

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