Malaysia not deterring smugglers

PETALING JAYA - Despite nine high-profile ivory seizures worth millions of ringgit since 2011, Malaysian authorities have yet to make any significant arrests that will help stamp out our reputation as a transit country for the illegal ivory trade.

According to Dr Chris Shepherd, regional director of wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic South-East Asia, intelligence-led investigations to break down the wildlife crime networks here are still not seen as a priority nor carried out to their fullest extent.

He pointed out that smugglers would not invest so much money in moving tonnes of ivory through Malaysia if they thought it was too risky.

"It's like electricity. Smugglers look for the path of least resistance. If they think they are going to get away with it here, then they will do it here," he told The Star.

Merely seizing shipments and arresting carriers or mules of the trade, he said, were not enough to deter smugglers from using Malaysia as a transit point.

"It's just going to make the dealers lose some money, but that's about it. Elephants are still going to be killed unless trade chains are broken and kingpins put behind bars," he said.

One of the biggest concerns, he said, was that large volumes of ivory had slipped through Malaysia undetected on numerous occasions.

According to statistics from the Elephant Trade Information System (Etis), a database used to analyse global ivory trade patterns and seizures, 31 seizures involved Malaysia since 2011, with nine seizures here and 22 seizures elsewhere.

At least four of the cases listed Malaysia as an "importer" country, while the rest, which included Malaysia as a transit point, were destined for other countries in South-East and East Asia.

Shepherd acknowledged the hugely challenging task facing the Royal Malaysian Customs Department, given that millions of containers transit through Port Klang a year.

"It's impossible to check all cargo. That is why working with source and importing countries is so important.

"Such collaboration would assist Customs and other Malaysian enforcement agencies in becoming a much more efficient force against the trade, acquiring more useful information, increasing interceptions and arrests, and ultimately reducing the flow of illegal ivory," he said, stressing that it all came down to improved multi-agency cooperation and intelligence-led investigations.

For example, he said that Etis has now shown the country of Togo to be a prominent link to Malaysia for ivory smuggling, and has shown that over the past five years, many shipments were disguised as wood or wood chips.

"So, let's increase our surveillance of wood chips coming in from Togo en route to Hong Kong," he suggested, adding that the Etis database shows which countries have been sending ivory through Malaysia.

However, Dr Shepherd commended Customs for their initiative in fighting against illegal ivory smuggling, including working with Traffic South-East Asia to train its officers.

"We hope to see wildlife crime continue to become a higher priority for Customs, the judiciary, police and Department of Wildlife and National Parks. The highest levels of Government must recognise this as a serious issue," he said, adding that this must in turn lead to increased levels of successful enforcement at ports, airports and borders.