It is the fourth most lucrative illegal trade in the world and Malaysia is among its thriving hubs. The global black market for wildlife and wildlife products is estimated to be about US$20 billion, ranking below drug smuggling, human trafficking and the illegal arms trade.
Over the past four decades, more than 50 percent of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out.
In the past, the extinctions were largely due to loss of habitat by deforestation and destruction of natural environments but today, it is also because of the burgeoning illegal wildlife trade.
The growing demand for bizarre exotic dishes, trophies and trinkets, and misguided beliefs in traditional cures are pushing many species to the brink of elimination.
Besides being a key link in the animal smuggling route, it is not surprising that Malaysia has also become a major source country for the illicit business.
Malaysia ranks 12th in the list of the 17 “megadiverse” countries of the world which hold about 70% of the planet’s animals and plants over land, freshwater and sea environments.
We have 306 species of mammals, 742 species of birds, 809 species of amphibians and reptiles, 950 species of fish and over 150,000 species of invertebrates, in addition to 15,000 species of vascular plants.
But about 14% of the mammals are now listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
More tragically, the Malayan tiger, the national animal which is featured in the country’s coat of arms, has come under the “critically endangered” IUCN Red List of threatened species.
Over the past eight years, the estimated number of tigers in the peninsula has dropped from 500 to between 250 and 340.
It has been a dreadful start of the year for the magnificent beast.
Since January, poachers have snared and killed two tigers, while a tigress which was pregnant with two cubs died after being hit by an SUV while crossing the East Coast Expressway in Terengganu.
In a despicable act of callousness or greed, two motorists who stopped by to gawk at the pitiful creature cut away her fangs before they drove off.
Last week, yet another tiger was snared in Tapah, Perak, although the trap, set by an orang asli, was meant for wild boar.
The 170kg male’s right paw was badly injured, making it impossible to be released back to the wild. The tiger, which has since been named ‘Yeop Tapah’, is likely to spend the rest of its days in a steel cage at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Sungkai.
Another animal on the critically endangered list is the pangolin or the scaly anteater. Its name is derived from the Malay word penguling which means “roll up”, something that the creature does – into a shape of a scaly ball – when it is threatened by predators.
But its armour is useless against poachers. The insatiable demand for pangolin meat and scales in China is causing the numbers of the animal to drop drastically in Asia, home of four of the eight species.
Pangolins have been prevalent in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years
and their scales were once also used for
These days, its meat is also regarded as a delicacy while soup made from pangolin foetus is touted as an aphrodisiac.
The pangolin is now the most sought-after mammal in the Asian wildlife trade and with the drop in the populations across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, most of the supply to China now comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Last Sunday, which also happened to be World Pangolin Day, officers of the Sabah Wildlife Department rescued 25 pangolins and a gunnysack full of the anteater’s scales in Lahad Datu.
It was a small success against a losing battle, especially in Sabah and Sarawak.
In September last year, Rhishja Cota-Larson, the founder of Annamiticus, an educational non-profit organisation against the exploitation of endangered species, posted a photograph that proved how pangolins were being traded openly. The photos showed a man offering to sell a mother pangolin and its tiny baby at the Sibu Night Market. It is not known if the man was arrested.
In Malaysia, like most places in the world, the illegal trade in animals and their parts is still not seen as a crime that is serious enough, especially with the common acceptance of eating bush meat or exotic dishes.
But it is this attitude which allows criminal syndicates to use corruption and take advantage of the usually light sentences imposed to keep preying upon wildlife.
It is a low-risk business with high returns that leaves only those at the lower levels like poachers and poor indigenous people getting caught while the real crooks who rake in the big bucks get away scot-free.
In Malaysia, although Perhilitan now has more powers under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, it also needs more manpower to be effective in catching poachers and operators of the illegal trade, which is now conducted mostly online, as reported in “Deal closed in 48 hours” (The Star, Feb 22).
In addition to extending the scope of joint patrols with the armed for¬ces under the ongoing 1Malaysia Biodiversity Enforcement Operation Network (1MBEON), the department’s special unit devoted to investigating online sales of wildlife needs to be beefed up and expanded to all states.
Intelligence and public support are the keys to combat the scourge of wildlife trading.
As CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Secretary-General John E. Scanlon has described it, the wildlife is the direct result of people’s actions.
People are the cause of this and people must be the solution through tackling human greed, ignorance and indifference.
M Veera Pandiya is an Associate Editor with the Star Online and a columnist with Deutsche Presse Agentur