Khabar Southeast Asia

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Malaysia steps up fight against ivory trade

By Grace Chen for Khabar Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur – 15/03/12

March 14, 2012

A Malaysian customs officer carries elephant tusks that were seized in Port Klang outside Kuala Lumpur on December 13th, 2011. [Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters]

A Malaysian customs officer carries elephant tusks that were seized in Port Klang outside Kuala Lumpur on December 13th, 2011. [Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters]

The illegal ivory trade saw a boom year in 2011. Worldwide, authorities seized an estimated 23 tonnes of ivory, which translates to 2,500 elephants slain for their tusks, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

Malaysia made an unprecedented contribution to those totals. Some six tonnes of tusks were uncovered in four major seizures in the country, which conservation groups say has become a key transit point for smuggled animal goods en route to Thailand and China.

An ivory shipment seized January 6th by Royal Malaysian Customs at West Port, Port Klang listed Malaysia as the final destination, however.

The 492 kg (1,082 lbs) of elephant tusks from South Africa, worth 2.4 million ringgit ($796,000), were bubble-wrapped, packed in cardboard boxes, hidden among used tyres and flooring material, and falsely declared as polyester and nylon strand matting.

Selangor State Customs Director Azis Yacub told The Star that a local shipping agent was being questioned in the case. Under the 1967 Customs Act, smugglers are subject to a fine of 10 to 20 times the value of the smuggled goods, a maximum of three years in jail, or both.

Zoo Negara deputy director Muhammad Danial Felix said the root of the problem lies with consumer demand.

"The wildlife trade is a $2 billion industry and certainly, there are big players involved. But if the buying stops, so will the killing," Felix told Khabar Southeast Asia.

"Instead of blaming the poachers and the smugglers, we should look at ourselves first. How can we put a halt to the ivory trade if we still have buyers who see its possession as a status symbol?" he added.

Elizabeth John, a senior communications officer at TRAFFIC South East Asia, told Khabar that Malaysia is not a major player in the ivory market compared to Thailand, Vietnam and Burma.

In its reports from 2008 and 2009, a total of 669 shops selling and trading in raw ivory and finished handicrafts were found in Vietnam alone. In Thailand, which has the world's largest domestic ivory market, it is sold freely in Chatuchak Market.

The Environment News Service reported the Royal Thai Customs confiscated more than two metric tonnes of African ivory at Bangkok's seaport last year.

"It all boils down to the basics of supply and demand," said Eddie Golo, who runs a store in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur's famous souvenir hub.

Raw ivory tips between 16 and 22 cm can fetch as much as $1,289, according to TRAFFIC.

"It is not enough to say that the ivory trade is about protecting the elephants. We are talking about an entire industry where its termination is going to hurt a lot of livelihoods," Golo said.

Generations of families in Thailand, Burma and Vietnam have moved out of poverty through the ivory trade, he said.

But Malaysians understand that trading in endangered animal parts is "a big no-no", he said.

"About seven years ago, one retailer was caught selling tiger skin and teeth in the premises and they slapped him with a ringgit 2,000 ($663) fine," he said.

According to TRAFFIC, a man who put two ivory statues for sale online became the first to be charged under Section 68(b) of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, after a raid by officials at his home in Bukit Jelutong in January.

There is growing awareness in Malaysia of the need to protect the Asian elephant from going extinct. Mindsets started to change in the early 1970s when the government decided to relocate marauding elephants to the jungles of Taman Negara and Kenyir.

At least 700 elephants were moved in the 1970s, said Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan , former director general of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks for Peninsular Malaysia, who spearheaded the elephant relocation exercise.

During the 1980s, rangers found dismembered elephant carcasses in the Kenyir jungles – the same elephants that had recently been relocated from other areas, he said.

"We figured that the poachers must have entered the area right after the rangers had left. During a relocation exercise, the elephants are heavily sedated and that would have made them easy targets," Khan said.

It is believed that the East-West Highway has also given poachers easier access to the jungles of Taman Negara.

But just as infrastructure has made it more convenient for the ivory traders, so it has for patrol units, which have been significantly increased, especially at the Thai border.

"Five years ago, (Malaysian authorities) were more lax," Khan said. "Now it's a different story."

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