PETALING JAYA - It has been largely the small fish who get caught in the illegal wildlife trade.
Wildlife authorities, however, are attempting to change that scenario as they focus on those who are really behind the trade - the large organised criminal network run by kingpins.
"It is tough for us because the big-time smugglers are very smart. Most of the time, they don't get their hands dirty so it is sometimes hard to find evidence against them," said Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) deputy director-general Dr Zaaba Zainol Abidin.
He said his department's move to nab the kingpins involved deeper investigation and, for this, undercover operations were on the agenda.
"Our goal is to be one step ahead so that we can pinpoint the illegal activities of the criminal organisation," said Dr Zaaba.
Perhilitan has strengthened its wildlife crime and intelligence unit, enabling it to expand its network of informants and enhance the intelligence received.
"We also work with other agencies, both locally and internationally, in the fight against wildlife crime," said Dr Zaaba.
He said Perhilitan usually carried out investigations after a report was lodged and, in some cases, officers had to go undercover.
He stressed, however, that it took a longer time to catch "the big fish".
Traffic South-East Asia regional director Dr Chris R. Shepherd acknowledged that the authorities were "upping their game" against illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia.
However, he felt that wildlife traders were still "running circles around us" and the battle was still being lost.
"They (illegal wildlife traders) are really organised criminal organisations and heaps of money are being made.
"You only need to look at the IUCN Red List on species that are listed as critically endangered. That is a big indication that we're losing," said Dr Shepherd.
He said not many species listed on the IUCN Red List had recovered, and many were still on the decline, inching closer to extinction.
Notable prosecutions against the wildlife trade include that of Malaysian Anson Wong, known as the "Lizard King".
Wong was convicted and imprisoned for 71 months in the United States after pleading guilty to trafficking in endangered reptiles in 2001.
This followed his arrest and conviction for attempting to smuggle snakes in his luggage from Penang to Jakarta. Wong was released on Feb 12.
Wong's wife Cheah Bing Shee has been charged with illegal possession of five elongated tortoises and her case has been fixed for hearing on Dec 11.