ENVIRONMENT-MALAYSIA: Tougher Wildlife Laws Not Enough, Say Activists - IPS ipsnews.net

ENVIRONMENT-MALAYSIA: Tougher Wildlife Laws Not Enough, Say Activists - IPS ipsnews.net

Tougher Wildlife Laws Not Enough, Say Activists
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 28, 2010 (IPS) - After years of losing the war against animal traffickers and poachers, Malaysia has finally responded with the passage of a new wildlife conservation law. But experts say it might be too late for some of this South-east Asian country’s endangered species.

They say that some species like the Sumatran rhinoceros, orang-utans, Malayan tigers and clouded leopards, are fighting a losing battle for their survival, so that all eyes are now on how this new law will be implemented.

"The tough new measures are probably four decades overdue," said conservationist Mohamed Idris. "Official neglect and corruption is fuelling the international trade in threatened species and the tough new law and action against corrupt officials may be too late for some endangered species."

The bill, which provides for significantly higher penalties and mandatory jail terms for a wide range of wildlife crimes, is expected to come into force as law in December 2010, following its approval by the Malaysian parliament in August.

"The apathetic official attitude (in the past) is a tragedy of unimaginable proportion for our wildlife," said one conservationist working for a government agency that preserves wildlife habitat at a forest reserve in East Malaysia, who declined to be named. "Even the rare and endangered tapir are found dead on the roadside, killed by speeding vehicles," she said.

"It all depends how seriously and effectively the government implement the new law," she added. "If effectively enforced, the law can give wildlife a respite against open and blatant poaching."

Critics point out that the Wildlife Department and other agencies given the power to arrest and prosecute potential offenders are understaffed, poorly paid and ill-trained. "They are not modern, don’t have modern equipment, they don’t use modern technology and their budget is minuscule compared to the challenges they face in protecting wildlife against poaches," lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan said. "The law is fine but the implementation part is wanting."

"We have neglected our rich wildlife heritage to the extent that many rare species like the clouded leopard and orang-utans are endangered and will soon disappear," Murugesan said. "We have the law but without the budget, the battle is lost."

The new law will replace the country’s 38-year-old Protection of Wildlife Act – considered obsolete because the maximum 15,000 Malaysian ringgit (5,000 U.S. dollar) fine for any wildlife crime is paltry by today’s standards.

The updated wildlife conservation law will increase the minimum fine to at least 33,000 dollars and provide for a mandatory jail sentence for offences such as setting snares. It will also close loopholes in the current law, including by imposing penalties for selling products claiming to contain parts of protected species or their derivatives. Zoos will not be allowed to operate without permits.

The new law will add to the number of agencies empowered to enforce wildlife laws, roping in police and immigration customs officers. Those convicted of wildlife crimes will be barred from holding any licence, permit or special permit for five years from the commencement of the case.

"Finally, Malaysian agencies have a solid wildlife law that they can wield against poachers and smugglers, who have had little to fear from the paltry fines and jail sentences of the past," said William Schaedla, regional director of TRAFFIC South-east Asia, a wildlife trade monitoring network.

The wildlife conservation bill has widespread support among Malaysians, a number of whom had written members of parliament and asked them to support the bill during the parliamentary debates in July and August. In 2009, thousands signed a petition seeking better protection of the country’s wildlife.

"The new law has given Malaysia the means and the opportunity drive home the message that it is serious about curbing this menace," Schaedla said. "So we hope the new law will be the catalyst for an all-out war against wildlife crime and that it will result in more prosecution of such criminals in the courts."

Yet, some fear that political realities might get in the way of the new law’s implementation.

A case in point is wildlife trafficker Anson Wong, also known as ‘Lizard King’, who was arrested at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Aug. 18 while on transit from Penang to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Said to be one of the biggest animal dealers in the world, Wong pleaded guilty to the illegal export of 95 boa constrictor pythons but was sentenced to only six months in jail and fined 60,000 dollars.

Following an international outcry by conservationists, state prosecutors appealed the verdict and sought heavier penalties.

Malaysian Animal Rights Society president Surendran Nagarajan described the light sentence as a "big embarrassment for our country".

"Malaysia has allowed him (Wong) to use Penang as a base and although reports were lodged with the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, nothing was done," Nagarajan, a lawyer, said in an interview. (END)

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