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 Clouded leopard cub for sale in a market. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.
Clouded leopard cub for sale in a market. Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC.

ROUGHLY one of every five animals that walks the land or plies the skies is traded internationally, according to a 2019 research published in the journal Science.

We’re talking about thousands of species that are being taken from the wild and sold as food, pets, or products in legal and illegal markets around the world, with little consideration for the ability of the species to survive in the long term.

According to Traffic’s latest report, the scale of wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia is incredible and a renewed game plan is needed to combat it.

The numbers are startling — some 900,000 pangolins are trafficked globally from 2000-2019 with significant proportions linked to Southeast Asia; over 225 tonnes of African Elephant ivory seized in Southeast Asia from 2008-2018 and 100,000 Pig-nosed Turtles seized in Indonesia from 2003-2019, and so much more.

“Not a day goes by without a wildlife seizure taking place in Southeast Asia, and all too often in volumes that are jaw dropping. Seizures are certainly commendable, but what must be eradicated are the many basic enabling factors that drive and fuel illegal trade,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for Traffic (the wildlife trade monitoring network) in Southeast Asia.

Traffic's report released on February 20, Southeast Asia: At the heart of wildlife trade co-authored by Kanitha and Traffic senior project officer Monica Zavagli, assesses the trafficking and illegal wildlife trade from the turn of the century and shows just how persistent the problem has been.

Every one of these incidents, documented in the report by Traffic, provide just a glimpse of the massive trade in endangered animals — and their bones, skins and other organs — that's taking place in Malaysia and across Southeast Asia.

According to Zavagli who co-authored the report, illegal trade statistics reinforce the position and significance of Southeast Asia’s footprint on biodiversity use and management. The numbers, she adds, are shocking.

In a world that seems to shrink with each passing year, consumption continues with a voracious and insatiable appetite. We're consuming natural resources at an unprecedented rate for fashion, traditional medicine, souvenirs, pets and wildlife hunting trophies. Driven by an ever-growing consumer market for wildlife products, the large volume of both legal and illegal trade in wildlife has caused great destruction to ecosystems and pushed many species to the brink of extinction.

We celebrate World Wildlife Day on March 3, and while we’re thankful for Malaysia's rich biodiversity and her rich and varied forms of wildlife, we're also reminded of the urgent need to step up the fight against wildlife crime and human-induced reduction of species, which have wide-ranging economic, environmental and social impacts


 A large section of African pangolin scales in an illegal shipment seized in Malaysia, 2017. Photo by E. John for TRAFFIC.
A large section of African pangolin scales in an illegal shipment seized in Malaysia, 2017. Photo by E. John for TRAFFIC.

Close to 30,000 kgs of pangolins were seized in Sabah in February 2019 from two locations — a warehouse and a factory. Back in 2012, a man was arrested with parts equivalent to 22 tigers!

Online surveys from 2006 to 2015 found that more than 1,000 Indian Star tortoises were offered for sale in 185 separate advertisements, while 3,640 more were seized in Malaysia from 2011-2019.

More than 63,000 kgs of illegal ivory seizures have implicated Malaysia as part of the trade route from 2003 to 2014, with Malaysia itself seizing some 19,000 kg of ivory during this period.

A whopping 70 per cent of traditional Chinese medicine shops surveyed in Peninsular Malaysia from 2017 to 2018 openly offered bear bile products for sale — a rise from 48 per cent in 2012

Malaysia is one of the most mega diverse countries in the world. It ranks 12th globally, with more than 15,000 species of vascular plants and 152,000 species of animal life. Yet its rich biodiversity has turned the nation into a hotbed for poaching, wildlife trafficking and even worse, a hub for international trade.

Malaysia, says Kanitha, ticks off the boxes as being an important source of wildlife, an important consumer country as well as an important transit for international wildlife trade.

“The source, of course, is due to the country’s rich biodiversity. Everything from pangolins and bears to our tigers, sambar deers and birds are being hunted,” she says. It therefore isn’t surprising, she adds, that Malaysia is a popular supply market.

Since February 2018, the government has nabbed 38 people, including Cambodian, Vietnamese and Myanmar nationals, for poaching and possessing wildlife parts. In May 2018, two Vietnamese poachers were fined a total of RM1.56 million, the biggest fine ever imposed for a wildlife-related offence. Perhilitan’s (Wildlife and National Parks Department) statistics show that almost 3,000 snares were destroyed in 479 operations carried out between 2014 and July 2018. The department has vowed to increase penalties for poachers in an amendment to the Wildlife Conservation Act.


 Seizure of radiated tortoises at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, July 2010. Photo by E. John for TRAFFIC.
Seizure of radiated tortoises at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, July 2010. Photo by E. John for TRAFFIC.

Adding to the reputational and security risk is the position of the country as a global hub of the illegal wildlife trade, with protected species being smuggled far and wide in and out of, and through Malaysia.

The country’s strategic position and excellent logistics are being exploited by criminals. It’s an important transit point in the smuggling of wildlife parts and products, including African ivory and pangolins, and tortoises from around the world.

A 2016 report by the Wildlife Justice Commission revealed that Kuala Lumpur is the easiest port to move illegal wildlife. The report also revealed that it costs traffickers 50 per cent less to move contraband through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and KLIA2, compared to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

 Hornbill beak tips seized in Malaysia, 2016. Photo by E. John for TRAFFIC.
Hornbill beak tips seized in Malaysia, 2016. Photo by E. John for TRAFFIC.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has also identified Malaysia as “Category A” (parties most affected with illegal trade of ivory) with a key role in the ivory trade as large amounts of ivory implicate the country as a transit hub, as well as a consolidator and redistributor.

Between 2003 and 2014, nearly 20 per cent of the world’s total ivory seizures had a Malaysian connection — amounting to more than 63 tonnes of ivory which were either seized in Malaysia, or were seized elsewhere but heading to the country or had already transited through it.

The Royal Malaysian Customs seized over 15 tonnes of African pangolin scales from nine seizures in the country, all over a seven-month period between May and November 2017.

The largest of these seizures were made in Sabah and Sarawak, spotlighting the wildlife trafficking role of ports and airports in the two East Malaysian states for the first time.


 Bear cub at a farm in Hanoi, 2011. Photo by M. Silverberg for TRAFFIC.
Bear cub at a farm in Hanoi, 2011. Photo by M. Silverberg for TRAFFIC.

The growing demand for traditional medicinal products has had devastating consequences for many species of wildlife. In some cases, poaching animals to use their body parts for traditional medicine is the primary reason why an animal faces a risk of extinction.

Research in traditional Chinese medicine shops in the country show they’re openly selling prohibited items such as bear bile. While the authenticity of these items is unverified, traders claim them to be bear bile — which is against national legislation.

Sun bears and Asiatic black bears are captured from forests or captive-bred so that traders can extract bile from their gallbladders. Bile is a yellowish liquid that’s believed to help some liver conditions and other ailments.

Saiga antelope horns are prized ingredients in traditional medicine used in several Asian countries, including Malaysia and Singapore, with products ranging from whole horns to “cooling water” and derivatives including shavings and powder.

While all Saiga range countries in Europe and Central Asia have banned hunting and trade of the species at different times between 1999 to 2014, meaning no legal horn export was permitted from these areas, the saiga horn remains a common find in medicine shops in Singapore and Malaysia, and promoted for its “cooling effect” despite little evidence of its effectiveness.


The growing demand for exotic meat also exacerbates the increase of poaching. Among the sought-after wildlife are sambar deer, kijang (barking deer) and kambing gurun (serow). In Peninsular Malaysia, all three are totally protected from hunting and trade.

Seizures by authorities also show how these animals, and others like bears, pangolins and tapir snouts, are prized for their meat. The presence of restaurants and outlets selling wild meat shows that there’s a demand in Malaysia for wildlife products, in particular, from the exotic food market.

Another lucrative and very disturbing trend globally is online trading. Traders are able to reach a huge audience of potential buyers to satisfy the demand of wildlife as exotic pets.

The law, explains Kanitha, doesn’t make it easy as perpetrators need to be caught with the contraband in order to be charged, and this is an area the government is looking to resolve.

Illicit online marketplaces, including through social media, have mushroomed over the past decade and cater to both opportunistic and highly organised buyers and sellers.

Anything considered a luxury product such as ivory and rhino horns to live animals such as slow lorises, leopards, sun bears and critically-endangered Ploughshare tortoises can be ordered, bought and shipped with the click of a button without either the buyer or seller leaving their homes or place of business.


 Kanitha Krishnasamy of Traffic.
Kanitha Krishnasamy of Traffic.

In Malaysia, wildlife crime enforcement is divided largely among three regional wildlife agencies in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. These agencies operate with different legislation, using different case management and intelligence systems, with glaring disparities in domestic wildlife protection laws for these three administrative regions.

For example, more than 1,900 species are considered totally protected in Peninsular Malaysia from any form of hunting or trade, though only 12 and 76 species are considered totally protected in Sabah and Sarawak respectively.

Corresponding fines are low particularly in Sarawak (maximum of MYR25,000), as compared to Peninsular Malaysia, which reaches up to MYR500,000 and a jail term of up to five years per offence.

“A harmonised set of legal and policy framework across the nation send a consistent message to perpetrators that wildlife crime isn’t “just an animal” issue. They’re equally grave, regardless of where it takes place across Malaysia” says Kanitha.


The issues faced by Malaysia, isn’t much different from what’s being faced across Southeast Asia. Malaysia can be said to be a microcosm of what’s transpiring across the surrounding region.

The study profiled 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summarising pressing local circumstances that enable illegal and unsustainable trade.

These countries function as source, consumer and as entrepôts for wildlife coming from within the region as well as the rest of the world, applying to trade that’s both legal and illegal, with many inadequacies and loopholes concerning regulation, law enforcement and overall levels of sustainability.

The study highlighted the region’s major issues that continue to allow illegal trade to thrive, including the existence of organised criminal networks moving wildlife contraband, poor conviction rates, inadequate laws, and poor regulation of markets and retail outlets.

Wildlife cybercrime, as well as challenges that have persisted over time such as pervasive corruption, a lack of political will and continued consumer demand for wildlife, were also examined in the report.


 A buyer inspects leopard skins at a retail outlet in Mong La, Special Region 4, Shan State, Myanmar, 2010. Photo by Adam Oswell for TRAFFIC.
A buyer inspects leopard skins at a retail outlet in Mong La, Special Region 4, Shan State, Myanmar, 2010. Photo by Adam Oswell for TRAFFIC.

The list goes on. Yet what’s discovered remains just the tip of the iceberg. TRAFFIC notes that the collated data only represents a small fraction of the overall magnitude of illegal wildlife trade in the region.

The seizures comprise a small segment of trafficking incidents that were successfully intercepted and reported, meaning a higher degree of trafficking remains undetected or unreported.

Moreover, the complex and often ambiguous systems that are meant to regulate industrial-scale commercial trade such as captive breeding operations, are in fact riddled with legal loopholes, leading to a mix of misdeclaration, misreporting and/or laundering of wild-caught animals as captive bred.

Additionally, seizures and illegal trade don’t often result in successful convictions or tough penalties that would act as a deterrent in what remains a low-risk, high profit world of wildlife crime.

Talk is useful in addressing the problems and education is crucial, but until we unite and together develop and implement local and global solutions to the wildlife crisis, we’ll continue to lose species.

 Stacks of bird cages typical of bird markets in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 2019. Photo by K. Krishnasamy for TRAFFIC.
Stacks of bird cages typical of bird markets in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 2019. Photo by K. Krishnasamy for TRAFFIC.

“At a glance it all seems like gloom and doom. But we’ve had significant success stories worth celebrating. Each one of the seizures by government represents one part of a success story — offenders haven’t profited from crime. Live animals rescued can be returned to the wild where they belong,” notes Kanitha before concluding: “The task ahead of us is to up the game so that we’re ahead, as opposed to playing ‘catch-up’.”

Wildlife trafficking doesn’t eradicate poverty nor does it benefit conservation. Large-scale and unregulated international trade often drives dynamics that vacuum key species from ecosystems, leaving behind devastated habitats poor of life and livelihoods. It's time we recognise that our voracious appetites form the crux of the problem. In other words — WE are the problem. We’re also the solution.

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