The car chase that ensued on a major road in Vietnam led to an unexpected discovery: a load of 118 critically endangered pangolins weighing 556kg.
Local police in the province of Ha Tinh knew something was amiss when the driver of a minivan refused to stop for a routine inspection at a traffic police checkpoint. Instead, the driver barreled through it, damaging two police vehicles. The officers gave chase and shot the tires of the car. Two wildlife traffickers escaped from the van, but the driver was apprehended.
That's when officers, while inspecting the vehicle, discovered 118 critically endangered pangolins wrapped up tightly in bags and piled on top of each other. The animals had had no access to food or water, but 113 of them had managed to survive and are now being looked after by staffers of the conservationist group Save Vietnam's Wildlife, who will release them back into the wild.
This time the animals were lucky. Many of them were still alive when they were accidentally discovered by law enforcement officials. Only recently, a large haul of pangolin scales, weighing 357kg, was discovered at a Vietnamese airport, in yet another case of rampant wildlife trafficking that has been driving all eight subspecies of pangolins ever closer to the verge of extinction across the wild in Africa and Asia.
In just one decade, some 1 million pangolins have been poached and sold for their meat and scales with a shocking 100,000 of them done so every single year. Vietnam has served as a major transit hub for the illegal trade in the animals. Over the past decade authorities in Vietnam have seized 54.8 tons of pangolins and 14.7 tons of scales. Meanwhile, populations of Sunda pangolins, which also inhabit some of Malaysia's forests, have plummeted by around 80% in recent years.
Pangolins, the world’s “most trafficked mammals,” are highly sought as ingredients in Chinese medicine and as meat in exotic dishes across much of Southeast Asia. Recently the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has voted to issue a total ban on the sale of all eight pangolin subspecies from Asia to Africa.
We must all must remain vigilant and step up the war on poaching and trafficking everywhere.
Officials in Vietnam have just made a gruesome discovery: the carcasses of five dead tigers in a wildlife trafficker's freezer. The internal organs of the Indochinese tigers had been removed, likely for use as ingredients in traditional medicine.
And there you have it. Despite heroic efforts by conservationists and wildlife officials across the region, the illegal wildlife trade carries on unabated. Vietnam remains a major transit point for the trafficking of tigers from across Southeast Asia and farther afield. Last May a Vietnamese man was arrested for trying to sell the frozen remains of four tiger cubs on Facebook.
Fuelling most of this deplorable trade in endangered animals are atavistic beliefs that falsely attribute medicinal properties to the body parts of "exotic" species. In China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and elsewhere the boiled bones of tigers ground and mixed with wine are widely on sale as medicine for arthritis and a variety of other ailments.
Back in 2010, the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), an association of prominent conservationist groups, set up a wildlife crime hotline. People could now report crimes against the country's iconic but increasingly endangered tigers simply by dialing a number.
The hotline has been busy ever since.
Callers can report crimes not only against tigers but also against other wild animals. They can do that all day every day all year long. The idea is that locals can serve as the eyes and ears of enforcement officials by reporting wildlife crimes in their area. Concerned citizens can report suspected poaching activities in their forests. They can call in about protected animals taken from the wild or bred in captivity for sale as "exotic pets." They can provide information about the rampant bushmeat trade in some parts of the country, like Sabah and Sarawak.
After receiving a call, MYCAT's operators alert the relevant authorities based on the nature of an alleged crime. "[W]e are then able to direct them to the best action on a case by case basis," explains Quek Yew Aun, a conservation officer at MYCAT. "For example, if it is a wildlife crime, we relay this information to PERHILITAN. For a land use problem, the information is directed to the local Land Office."
The initiative has been working pretty well, he says. This past March, for example, two endangered black-winged kites (Elanus caerulens) were found in Bandar Botanic, in Klang, by two people who, rather than sell the birds for a price, did the right thing and called the hotline. "We relayed this information to PERHILITAN Selangor who promptly rescued the chicks for rehabilitation and release," the conservation officer says.
In another incident, he says, an injured adult barn owl (Tyto alba) was found with a broken wing by several students at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman in Perak. Instead of leaving the injured bird to its fate, they found the hotline's number on Google and rang it. "By following our instructions, they managed to send the owl for proper veterinary care and treatment," the officer says. "Now, like the black-winged kite chicks, it has a good chance of being released upon healing."
Meanwhile, a concerned citizen who saw several Indian star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) on sale at an online pet shop reported it to the hotline. This led to the arrest of five men who had been trafficking in protected species in Negri Sembilan.
"We laud the actions of these ordinary citizens. You are superheroes in your own right," the conservationist says. "We urge the public to remain vigilant," he adds. "Do report any suspicious activities, wildlife crimes or wildlife related issues to the MYCAT Wildlife Crime Hotline 019-356 4194. We promise we will be at the other end of the line, doing our best."
When even seasoned experts are taken aback by the scale of wildlife trafficking across Malaysia, you know we're in trouble. Yet taken aback experts are at TRAFFIC, an international anti-trafficking watchdog. And rightfully so.
Recent arrests of several wildlife traffickers by Malaysian authorities have provided further evidence (not that any more was needed) that the country remains a hotbed for an illicit trade in protected animals. These arrests have also served as a timely reminder that despite their successes local authorities have a long way to go before the buying and selling of "exotic" animals as pets and ingredients in traditional medicine can be stamped out.
That's especially so since much of the trade is conducted in the free-for-all environment of online social media, as TRAFFIC itself demonstrated last year, which can make the monitoring of it a challenge.
"But one year on [after we published our report], a sweep of seven illegal online traders and the rescue of 49 wild animals has turned that initial shock to utter dismay," about the scale of the problem, the nonprofit notes in an op-ed. "From the looks of last week’s enforcement action, and numerous arrests and seizures since 2015, it’s clear that illicit online wildlife trade has taken root and become an insidious norm."
Of especial concern is the fact that most of the animals seized from illegal traders were youngsters that belonged to totally protected species. In other words, despite all the educational campaigns conducted in Malaysia to wean locals off buying and selling endangered wildlife, many people just can't seem to care less. "This points to a disturbing disregard for the law among netizen traffickers and buyers of poached and smuggled wildlife," TRAFFIC observes.
"It also speaks volumes of how disconnected the Malaysian public is from nature," the group goes on to elucidate. "There seems little concern for how wild pets may have been sourced – if adults were killed to acquire juveniles or if they were stolen from Malaysian forests or another country, stuffed into suitcases and smuggled, countless dying along the way."
Let's pause to reflect on that, for a moment. Even as many Malaysians, especially young ones, go gaga over "cute" animals, like slow lorises and juvenile monkeys, they don't seem to realize (or care) that many of these animals are subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of traffickers. If you truly love these animals, you would never want to see them suffer. Rather, you would seek to preserve them in the wild, where they belong.
And to make matters worse, many of those animal traffickers are young Malaysians themselves. Last year, for instance, wildlife authorities discovered a Facebook account used for selling protected animals. The site was run by a teenage school dropout who was caught at a local shopping mall after he had offered to sell a baby bearcat, also known as a binturong, for RM5,000 in a Facebook post. Other Malaysians, from students to housewives, have likewise taken to buying and selling protected animals online in wanton disregard of the country's laws.
And there's more: "There seems to be even less understanding of the dangers armed poachers in our jungles pose to national security, or the risk of zoonotic diseases spreading through illegal and irresponsible wild pet ownership," TRAFFIC explains.
Disheartening, yes. But what to do? The answer is, of course, clear: We must step up educational and awareness campaigns across the country, both online and offline. But such campaigns will bear little fruit unless they are complemented with a rigorous crackdown on all forms of animal trafficking throughout the sales chain from seller to buyer.
"What are postal, express mail, transport and logistics services doing to ensure their businesses aren’t being misused to ferry wildlife traded online?" TRAFFIC wonders poignantly. "What are other government departments and ministries that oversee these sectors doing to support enforcement agencies battling the menace?" It also asks: "Are we being too lenient with those who violate wildlife laws and are we failing to use available legal tools as the deterrents they are meant to be?"
Sadly, we know the answers to these questions. Malaysian authorities will need to get much tougher on wildlife traffickers. Encouragingly, several prominent Malaysian officials from Natural Resources and Environment Minister Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar to Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria clearly understand the urgency of the threats facing Malaysia's wildlife and have called for tougher actions accordingly.
But ultimately it is Malaysian citizens themselves that will need to act. TRAFFIC has called on Malaysian to do their part in stamping out the trade in protected species. "We ask citizens to report illegal wildlife trade they may witness," it says. "The Wildlife Crime Hotline 019-3564194 is open all day, every day. The Wildlife Witness App is free for download and can be used throughout Southeast Asia."
Parents should also discourage their children from buying exotic animals as pets. For that, cats, dogs, hamsters and a variety of traditional pets will do just fine. "We ask every parent to discourage their child from buying wild animals as pets and every adult to just say no when offered a protected wild animal," TRAFFIC says. "We would like to see schools teach students the wonder of Malaysia’s wildlife and we ask the private sector not to ignore the problem, or they role they play in perpetuating it. And we ask this for the wild."
Another day, another major bust of wildlife traffickers. To wit: Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) officials have busted a major network of trafficker who were operating via social media.
In the latest crackdown on the exotic pet trade, Perhilitan officials nabbed a total of 11 people who were found to be buying and selling endangered species, many of them online.
Officials also managed to rescue 50 animals from the traffickers' clutches. “I believe we have crippled a major illegal syndicate selling wildlife through the social media,” Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar announced at a press conference.
Among the arrested traffickers nabbed on a single day in late March was a 36-year-old local woman who was arrested at her house in Ampang for having three civets, seven black langur monkeys and six leopard cats. Also nabbed was a Pakistan man, who was found to have two boxes full of juvenile black langur monkeys, which he was transporting on his motorbike.
So, too, were five men, aged 21 to 25 years, who were travelling in two cars and were detained in Senawang, Negeri Sembilan, after officials found 28 Indian star tortoises and two hill mynahs in their possession.
Indian star tortoises were among exotic animals seized from traffickers.
"In the raid on March 27, seven people were arrested, for being a major supplier of wildlife, who are active in making online transactions selling wildlife illegally," Wan Junaidi explained. “The Wildlife Department has been monitoring their activities for a long time and we believe we have managed to break the main syndicate involved in exploiting the social media for illegal wildlife trading in Peninsular Malaysia.”
Complicating the work of wildlife officials is the fact that many people who buy and sell rare and protected animals online as part of Malaysia's thriving exotic pet trade aren't professional criminals. Rather, they're citizens who seek to complement their income by engaging in the trade Most of them conduct their business online, in Facebook chatrooms and via messaging apps like WhatsApp.
According to the minister, people who buy and sell wildlife illegally even include children from well-off families who like to keep exotic animals as pets. That's why improved environmental education is a must. Wan Junaidi has recently proposed adding environmental education to school curricula.
He has also called on citizens to stop selling and buying protected species. "The ministry is giving a strict warning to anyone who sells, keeps or owns wildlife without permission from the department, to stop doing so immediately or face legal action," he said.
“The Wildlife Department has been monitoring their activities for a long time and we believe we have managed to break the main syndicate involved in exploiting the social media for illegal wildlife trading in Peninsular Malaysia,” he said in a press conference, here, today."