Wildlife Matters - Wage war on poachers

AS MUCH as I dislike being repetitious or negative, sometimes a situation simply leaves you with no choice. My inaugural piece in 2014 for this column was on the Malayan tiger.

Though the article at that time highlighted the challenges Malaysia is facing in trying to protect the majestic Malayan tiger, I was nevertheless hopeful. After all, the government had put in place the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan since 2009.

But in the last few weeks, we sadly learnt that we have lost three adult Malayan tigers under tragic circumstances; two to illegal hunting and one to a road collision. With so much loss impacting a population on the verge of extinction, I find my hopefulness waning and being replaced with much despair.

With less than 300 estimated tigers left in the wild, every single loss is a huge dent to the population and a mighty blow to conservation efforts.

Despite well laid out plans to save the tiger from extinction, I sincerely believe that failure to fully and intensively commit to effective wildlife law enforcement acts as a stumbling block towards conservation success.

I can't see how any other conclusion can be derived at if tiger carcasses keep turning up. The reality is that illegal hunters (some armed) encroach and penetrate our forests and protected areas, build makeshift camps and roam our forest to lay snares to capture our wildlife.

Where else is the deficit except in intelligence gathering, constant surveillance and more arrests before the commission of the crime?

Confiscating carcases isn't in my view to be measured as an enforcement success. It is in fact an enforcement failure.

Wildlife crime has not abated by any means. In Taman Negara alone (our premier protected area mind you) 2014 official statistics show that 19 foreign intruders were arrested, 180 snares were confiscated and 24 makeshift camp sites were detected and destroyed.

It is estimated that Taman Negara suffered nearly RM8.9 million in losses from encroachment activities and the removal of trees to build these illegal camps.

Truly, the only way we will have a fighting chance of ensuring a viable population of tigers well into the future is if we make a real concerted, dedicated, coordinated and cohesive plan towards a multifaceted enforcement strategy.

The solution doesn't require out of the box approaches. It merely requires the government to pursue wildlife enforcement with a determination equivalent to fighting a war and winning it.

Heavy presence of law enforcement officers across the tiger landscapes be it in protected areas, forest reserves or state land forests is of upmost priority.

Wildlife enforcement falls within the purview of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. I do appreciate the work that they do and I appreciate the challenges they face.

In recognition of the need for a joint force in combating wildlife and natural resource related crimes, the National Blue Ocean Strategy introduced an enforcement network known as the IMalaysia Biodiversity Enforcement Operation Network.

Here, the department combines forces with the Malaysian military to conduct enforcement within Taman Negara which traverses Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu.

These are positive developments of course and high time that we acknowledge that the Wildlife Department cannot conduct enforcement solely on its own.

My question is whether despite these joint efforts with the military and perhaps even NGOs, are we at an optimal level in terms of boots on the ground to curb wildlife crime?

From an "on the ground" enforcement perspective, best practice norm suggests that the ideal situation is to have one wildlife ranger/officer for every 10 sq km. WWF-Malaysia estimates that Malaysia only has less than 10% of the ideal norm; which means we only have one ranger/officer for every 100 sq km.

Clearly we simply have not deployed enough manpower to quell poaching activities.

I am also of the view that the Department of Forestry needs a paradigm shift in the way they choose to secure our forests. It's a case of not only seeing the forest for the trees but the wildlife within it.

I understand that in some instances there is a joining of forces with the Wildlife Department for wildlife enforcement.

These are ad-hoc approaches.

I am suggesting something a little more substantive. The National Forestry Act of 1984 needs to be amended to include wildlife protection within forest reserves as a prescription under its enforcement powers.

Wildlife being a subject matter under the Concurrent List under the Federal Constitution means that there is no impediment to State Forestry laws including a prescription in relation to wildlife.

Malaysia really needs to wake up to the threat of wildlife poaching as it is a very real and destructive threat.

Some countries in the African continent take wildlife poaching and protection of wildlife within their national parks so seriously that they have implemented shoot to kill policies against poachers.

I am no advocate of that sort of extreme action, but I do advocate for the following. Make enforcement capability, supply of resources, collaborating and coordinating on intelligence, technology use and deployment of adequate rangers as a primary investment for the country.

We will be richer in biodiversity for it.

Lastly, the death of the pregnant tigress on the LPT2 is nothing short of a tragedy. I was comforted by the fact many netizens shared their grief over social media.

I read many instances of wildlife crossings and eco-viaducts in Malaysia being referenced for the public who didn't know we indeed have them.

Yes folks, we do have very expensive man-made solutions to the man-made problems of habitat and forest fragmentation. I wonder if it's effectiveness has ever been assessed?

The issue is, with enforcement manpower being as weak as it is, can we guarantee that these crossings or eco-viaducts offer safe passage to the wildlife that use them?

If we cannot guarantee safe passage then these crossings only serve to make it easier for the poachers to trap wildlife. One solution must not lead to another problem.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena.
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