To save the Malayan tiger, poachers could be shot on sight

PHOTO: Pixabay

Just minutes into an interview with The Star, Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim is upset.

The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) director-general has held many press conferences to report the seizure of animal parts ranging from tiger skins and rhino horns to pangolin scales with his composure intact. But at this one-on-one interview, he is finding it difficult to talk about the damage that poachers' snares inflict on wildlife in the forests.

"The animals either die or are injured when they are caught in the snare. Sometimes, we have footage or pictures captured by our camera traps showing the animals gnawing off a foot to get loose."

"In the worst cases, we will tranquillise the animal and bring it back to our centres to be treated. Usually, they die in a week or two," he says.

Abdul Kadir, who joined Perhilitan in 1992, knows the forests of Peninsula Malaysia - as one interviewer notes - like the "back of his hand", having spent the first decade of his career in the field where he studied the Sumatran rhino (considered extinct in the wild now), the Malayan gaur and the serow (both since listed as vulnerable in the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Those in the know have pointed out that since becoming Perhilitan director-general on Aug 25, 2017, Abdul Kadir has been very engaged with conservation groups.

Efforts to set up a central agency to conserve wildlife in Peninsula Malaysia dates back even earlier than that, though, to 1930, followed by the eventual establishment of the headquarters for a Game Department (Jabatan Mergastua) in 1937.

The Wildlife Reserve in Chior, Perak, was the first protected area to be set up in 1903 in then Malaya, encompassing an area of 4,330ha but this has since shrunk to 689ha.

Today, Perhilitan's location next to a new mall coming up is an ironic reflection of the state of wildlife in Peninsula Malaysia: animals are being increasingly squeezed out by development, resulting in many species such as wild boars and snakes overrunning housing estates.

The most dangerous and urgent problem affecting our wildlife, however, are poachers, especially when it comes to the Malayan tiger as well as other "commercial" animals such as leopards, clouded leopards and sun bears.

The poachers, says Abdul Kadir, have surprisingly simple tools of trade: a springy pole, some string and cable wire, all of which costs very little.

"Videos on how to make the wire snares are easily available on YouTube. Even schoolchildren can do it," he says.

While the snares can be installed with minimal time and effort, the effects are nothing less than lethal and they can trap animals ranging in size from an elephant to a deer - as Abdul Kadir can sadly testify (see photos of animals caught in snares above).

Between 2013 and 2018, the department, working together with non-governmental organisations, destroyed some 3,500 snares. In that time alone, some 82 animals of various species were found dead, trapped by the snares.

And Malaysia is not alone.

Wire snares have now become so pervasive in forests in South-East Asia that it was reported in May 2018 that rangers in Cambodia's Southern Cardamom National Park removed 109,217 snares in over just six years.

A sun bear in agony after being caught in a poacher's snare. Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia Programme

The situation is so serious that on July 29, 2018, Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar said that the ministry was seriously mulling a shoot-on-sight policy against wildlife poachers, most of whom encroach illegally into the country's forests from neighbouring nations.

While Perhilitan welcomes such a policy, Abdul Kadir says it is still in talks with other enforcement agencies and looking into the legal provisions by which this could be carried out.

"The shoot-on-sight policy is a new approach that will be taken by the ministry to curb poaching that continues to take place, particularly in protected areas such as Taman Negara, Royal Belum and Endau Rompin," he says.

To save the tigers, the department is also currently carrying out a "Save Our Harimau Malaya" campaign, which includes Ops Belang, a wildlife safety and conservation operation in many of the country's poaching "hotspots".

"It is a drastic programme by Perhilitan to ensure that our staff is everywhere - that is, boots on the ground - and it involves all levels of our officers in ensuring that our wildlife is protected," explains Abdul Kadir.

Launched in January this year and set to last until 2020, it involves 200 staff moving in tandem to cover almost all of Peninsula Malaysia, particularly areas targeted by the poachers."The main purpose of Ops Belang is to protect our country's icon, the Harimau Malaya, which is now facing a reduction in numbers to less than 200 due to poaching and snares," says Abdul Kadir.

Among Ops Belang activities are patrols in known tiger habitats, including along timber roads, wildlife trails, along rivers and around lakes, and the detection and recording of traces of encroachment and poaching, as well as the destruction of snares.

An elephant whose leg was crippled by a snare. Photo: WWF Malaysia

Kongsi (lodgings for workers) at logging sites and plantations will also be checked and the number of animals recorded in the areas monitored.

Abdul Kadir is convinced that with enforcement and monitoring, the number of tigers in the wild will increase since tigers in captivity have shown that they are quite capable of breeding.

"We will have to do this for a minimum of 10 years to see the number of tigers increase in the wild."

"We are serious about protecting our tigers. Can you imagine our country's coat of arms without the tigers? There's no meaning," he says.

Abdul Kadir is worried that the tiger population in the wild may fall to 100, which may mean the effective extinction of the species.

"A population that small in size may not be able to mate, as the tigers are isolated from each other."

"By hook or crook, we have to save the tigers," he reiterates, adding that Ops Belang signals the department's commitment to battle wildlife crime.

Ops Belang is in addition to other measures that Perhilitan is already implementing, such as international co-operation, setting up flying squads and intelligence units and putting in place a wildlife DNA database at its National Wildlife Forensic Lab to aid prosecution work.

A volunteer with Citizen Action for Tigers holding a small snare trap, designed to catch small animals like rodents or pheasants.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Chief of this is a request for back-up in enforcement numbers from the country's armed forces for wildlife patrols, something which NGOs such as the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MyCat) have clamoured for.

It is a model employed by the Nepalese government to protect its own tigers - to some considerable success. It managed to almost double its tiger population in the wild to 235 animals in 2018 from just 120 in 2009.

"We are looking at adopting the model. We have put in a request through the ministry to the Defence Ministry," states Abdul Kadir, adding cautiously, however, that it might not get the numbers that it asked for.

"But it would be good if we could get the numbers," he notes, declining to reveal the specific number.

"At the same time, we will be focusing on intelligence - the middle men or the masterminds - to know the structure of the syndicates behind the poaching," says Abdul Kadir.

"The shoot-on-sight policy is a new approach that will be taken by the ministry to curb poaching that continues to take place, particularly in protected areas such as Taman Negara, Royal Belum and Endau Rompin,'"says Abdul Kadir. Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

In fact, the link between wildlife poaching and illegal animal trade and professional criminal groups - so-called syndicates -involved in drug and human trafficking, terrorism and other transnational offences has well been established by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Its report has documented that the routes taken by poachers and smugglers of wildlife are often the same ones used for the trafficking of drugs and people.

It is for this reason that offences under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 are now included under the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Order 2014.

"Poaching contributes to the smuggling of wildlife. Profits from the smuggling are used to carry out illegal businesses and obtain assets," points out Abdul Kadir.

He also reveals that there are amendments in store for the Act (commonly known as Act 716): "The amendments are in the process of having their Regulatory Impact Statement documentation prepared.

"This will take into account the impact on stakeholders and will require an engagement session," he explains, adding that Perhilitan aims to forward the proposal to the Attorney General's Chambers by this month or May and the MPs' table in Parliament by the end of the year.

On April 1, Deputy Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Tengku Zulpuri Shah Raja Puji told Dewan Rakyat that among the changes - 78 sections under the Act to be amended and 10 new ones created - were those targeting the illegal online wildlife trade.

Conservation groups are now hoping that the amendments - as well as other measures put into place by the Perhilitan director-general - will lift somewhat the pressure of poaching and other crimes on the population of Malaysian wildlife.

"There is a concerted effort to do something about it. Only time will tell if it's enough," says a source.

Malaysia, says Abdul Kadir, has to save its "national treasure", citing the badak Jawa or the Rhinoceros sondaicus (one-horned rhino) and the merak hijau or Pavo muticus (green peafowl) as species which have been lost.

"We have to do something or else more animals will go extinct," he says.

With Abdul Kadir knowing the forests of Peninsula Malaysia like the back of his hand, it is hoped that Malaysian wildlife will now be in safer hands.