From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2011:
PETALING JAYA, Malaysia— The arrival of 2011 in Malaysia brought into full effect the Wildlife Conservation Act, a sweeping update of 30-year-old previous legislation that includes under one heading the corpus of Malaysian law covering almost every aspect of human interaction with wild animals. Like most national wildlife laws, the Malaysian Wildlife Conservation Act covers hunting, fishing, capturing wildlife, protection of endangered and threatened species, and dealing with dangerous and “nuisance” wildlife. It also includes language prohibiting cruelty to wildlife, including captive wildlife, and establishes basic requirements for zoo management.
Yet to be seen is whether the Malay-sian Department of Wildlife & National Parks is capable of enforcing the Wildlife Conservation Act, especially in view of broad exemptions granted to the department itself. Known in Malaysia by the Malay name Perhilitan, the often politically embattled wildlife department has long blamed the old legislation that the Wildlife Conservation Act replaces for ineffective response to wildlife poaching and trafficking, massacres of wildlife accused of raiding crops, and the failures of substandard zoos to upgrade.
World Wildlife Fund policy coordinator Preetha Sankar told Julia Zappei of Associated Press that the previous penalties for offenses against wildlife were “nothing more than a slap on the wrist.”
Adopted by the Malaysian parliament in July 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Act took full effect after six months of escalating enforcement. Five years after forming a dedicated Wildlife Crime Unit, Perhilitan doubled its wildlife conservation staff, reinforced vigilance at 13 checkpoints along routes believed to be used by traffickers, and established an integrated wildlife law enforcement task force also including the Malaysian military, police, customs, and airport authorities, a Perhilitan spokesperson told Rashvinjeet S. Bedi of the Star of Malaysia.
The passage of the Wildlife Conservation Act and ensuing show of force against wildlife crimes followed the June 2010 seizure of 369 radiated tortoises, 47 tomato frogs, and several chameleons by customs officers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, who failed to detain the suspected smuggler, and a July 2010 police raid on a stolen car syndicate which recovered 42 stolen cars plus “thousands” of birds, according to media accounts.
The incidents helped to restore the focus of parliamentary debate over the draft Wildlife Conservation Act. The debate at one point featured an elected representative complaining that crop-raiding monkeys were undaunted by old tires he cut to look like snakes. Another elected representative suggested that the monkeys could be captured and taught to play football as a tourist attraction. Natural resources and environment minister Seri Douglas Uggah Embas responded that his department was studying the possibility of relocating problematic monkeys to an offshore island. He put the Malaysian monkey population at about 740,000.
The exchange came after Malacca state chief minister Mohamad Ali Rustam backed a plan for the Indian firm Vivo Bio Tech to build a laboratory for conducting experiments on monkeys. Previous natural resources and environment minister Seri Azmi Khalid in August 2007 floated the idea of selling nuisance macaques captured in urban areas to China for laboratory use and human consumption. But Khalid in February 2008 backed away from the scheme amid a storm of protest.
The Lizard King
An early test of the determination of Perhilitan to enforce the Wildlife Conservation Act came on August 26, 2010, just a month after the act cleared parliament, when Kuala Lumpur International Airport police apprehended Anson Wong, 52, of Penang, whose travel bag broke open on a conveyor belt, releasing 95 boa constrictors whom Wong was trying to take to Indonesia.
Wong was no ordinary traveler. Author Bryan Christy in his 2008 exposé book The Lizard King identified Wong as “the most important person in the international reptile business.” Malaysia Animal Rights Society president N. Surendran pointed out to media that Perhilitan had allowed Wong to operate a reptile trading business in Malaysia even after he was arrested in Mexico City for illegal reptile trafficking in 1998, was extradited to the U.S., and served 71 months in prison for smuggling, conspiracy, money-laundering, and wildlife offenses. Wong had trafficked in reptiles via the now defunct Bukit Jambul Reptile Sanctuary. “With such a front,” Surendran said, traffickers “can import and export animals and it looks legitimate.”
Further, Surdendran observed, Wong was “uncovered by airport security. Perhilitan was only involved in the prosecution. It was not as if Perhilitan conducted a sting operation.” Wong was initially sentenced to serve six months in prison, but on appeal by Perhilitan the sentence was in November 2010 increased to five years.
Had Wong enjoyed a better relationship with the present Perhilitan senior management, however, and had obtained the proper permits, his case might have had a different outcome.
“Notwithstanding anything in this Act, for the purpose of carrying out any conservation activity, the Director General or any officer authorized by him may breed, keep, hunt, import, export, sell or purchase any wildlife,” states the Wildlife Conservation Act. “A ‘conservation activity’ means an activity that relates to the protection, management and sustainable use of wildlife.”
Says the anti-cruelty language in the Wildlife Conservation Act, “Save as otherwise provided in this section, any person who a) beats, kicks, infuriates, terrifies, tortures, declaws or defangs any wildlife; b) neglects to supply sufficient food or water to any wildlife which he houses, confines, or breeds; c) keeps, houses, confines or breeds any wildlife in such manner as to cause it unnecessary pain or suffering; d) uses any wildlife for performing or assisting in the performance of any work or labour which by reason of any infirmity, wound, disease or any other incapacity it is unfit to perform; e) uses, provokes or infuriates any wildlife for the purpose of baiting it or for fighting with any other wildlife or animal, or manages any premises or place for any of these purposes; or f) wilfully does or willfully omits to do anything which causes any unnecessary suffering, pain or discomfort to any wildlife, commits an offence,” punishable by a fine of not less than 5,000 ringgit and not more than 50,000 ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both.”
The anti-cruelty language adds that “Any person who provokes or wounds any wildlife which consequently becomes an immediate danger to human life commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding 30,000 ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both.”
An exemption to the anti-cruelty clause states that, “This section shall not apply to any person who wounds any wildlife in the course of lawfully hunting it under this Act.” Lawful hunting under the Wildlife Conservation Act excludes snaring: “No person shall possess or keep any snare; or set, place, or use any snare for the purpose of hunting any wildlife.” But “an owner or occupier of land may, with the written approval of the Director, use birdlime for the good faith destruction of grain-eating birds found damaging or destroying growing cereals during the period when the crop is ripe or ripening.”
In addition, “where any wildlife is causing, or there is reason to believe that it is about to cause, serious damage to crops, vegetables, fruits, growing timber, domestic fowls or domestic animals in the possession of an owner or occupier of land, the owner or occupier or any servant of the owner or occupier or any officer may capture or kill the wildlife after first using reasonable efforts to frighten away the wildlife and failing to do so.” This exemption could provide cover for poaching or capturing any species, if the pretext of preventing a threat to human interests is established first, for instance by baiting the target species into proximity to crops or domestic animals.
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