Did Sabre the elephant’s death change anything or is poaching in Malaysia still out of control?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The numbers of Malaysia’s elephants being slain for their tusks is increasing dramatically. Can poaching be brought under control before another species is hunted to extinction from Malaysia’s national parks?

By Oliver Ward

A remarkable Bornean Pygmy Elephant made global headlines in August 2016, the animal’s tusks growing downwards and backwards giving it a sabre-toothed appearance. Nicknamed ‘Sabre’ by officials and the media, he was electronically tagged and relocated to the Kawag Forest Reserve on the Segama River, for protection. However, just a few months later Sabre’s body was found having been killed by poachers, his magnificent tusks removed, with his satellite collar left alongside his skull.

With only between 1,500 and 2,000 pygmy elephants left in the wild, Sabre’s death highlights an increase in poaching in Malaysia’s national parks. The high prices paid for rhino horn and elephant tusks across Asia for use in traditional medicines and as trophies are attracting poachers to Malaysia’s biodiverse national parks. In the last two months of 2016 three critically endangered Bornean Pygmy Elephants were killed across the country – two near the Sabah national park and one in Kinabatangan in the east.

Malaysia has long been a key transit state for ivory

Malaysia has long been a key player in the smuggling and distribution of this precious material. Records of ivory seizures from January 2003 to May 2014 show that 66 were linked to Malaysia and 19 actually took place on Malaysian soil, totalling 14,948 kilogrammes. The other 47 took place after the ivory had passed through Malaysian ports undetected.

With many members of Malaysian communities involved in the ivory industry, it comes as no surprise that sights have now been set on the Bornean Pygmy Elephants and their tusks. Sabah National Park’s Sumatran Rhinoceros population was declared extinct in 2015 due to habitat loss and the US$45,000 per kilogramme price tag on their horns in Chinese markets. The iconic Malayan tiger is now also endangered due to extensive hunting. Without serious action the already critically small population of Bornean Pygmy Elephant will suffer the same fate as the Sumatran Rhino and find itself hunted to extinction in Malaysia’s jungles. Benoit Goossens, director at the Danau Girang Field Center agrees, saying, “We are losing our megafauna, the rhino is gone, the banteng [wild cow] is going, the elephant will be next.”

Poaching is an established and profitable industry that needs to be stamped out

Under 2010 amendments to the Wildlife Conservation Act people who illegally hunt or are in possession of endangered wildlife can be punished with a fine of up to MYR500,000 (US$155,000) and face mandatory prison sentences of up to five years. The law is anything but lenient yet it is not deterring poachers from taking the risk and they continue to hunt in the country’s national parks.

Any long-standing solution to the problem has to address three areas: the high demand, law enforcement and a shift in public attitude towards conservation. The vast sums of money that can be made from endangered animal parts will continue to lure poachers into the national parks for a big payday but if demand could be reduced then prices will fall and poachers would be less inclined to take the risk of hunting for ivory. The implementation of the law cannot be hindered by a lack of government funding or official corruption to curtail the poaching and smuggling industries across the country. Finally, public attitudes need to be changed in communities where many of the members are involved in smuggling and poaching.

Nothing can be achieved without a reduction in Chinese demand

Elephant tusks and rhino horns are status symbols in China and the animal parts are often used to make jewellery, traditional medicines and elaborate ornaments. The Chinese market drives the ivory industry and experts believe as much as 70% of the world’s ivory ends up there. The ivory from Sabre’s tusks will almost certainly have been smuggled into China, where elephant tusks can fetch US$1,100 per kilogramme.

However, this could be set to change. The Chinese government has announced plans to phase out the commercial sale of ivory by the end of 2017. If the ban is enforced, this could have a profound effect on the illegal Malaysian ivory trade and greatly reduce the poaching of elephants in the country. Hong Kong plans to end their ivory trade by 2021, so the trade could continue until the whole region ends its commercial activities and it will undoubtedly depend on the implementation and enforcement of the ban, but in the future demand looks set to fall.

Muslim clerics have effectively combatted poaching by issuing fatwas

In 2015 Muslim clerics in Terengganu issued a fatwa declaring that any Muslims involved in illegal hunting were engaging in sinful activity. Combatting poaching requires a change of attitude amongst the communities involved and in Terengganu 95% of the population are Islamic.

While the edicts are not legally binding, religion has played a significant role in changing attitudes in the past. In 2009 in the same region Islamic figures worked to raise awareness of the importance of turtle conservation and in Indonesia a similar fatwa helped combat people smuggling. Chris Shepherd, the regional director for South East Asia for TRAFFIC, who monitor the illegal wildlife trade, praised the fatwa, saying it, “helps put the poaching issue in the spotlight, it focuses on a community where many are involved in illegal hunting.”

Can the Malaysian government implement their policies more effectively?

Despite the harsher punishments and improved wildlife enforcement capabilities since 2010, poaching is still increasing in Malaysia. There have been a number of important convictions, such as the three men convicted in Indonesia earlier this year after police found tiger bones, teeth and stuffed pelts, but convictions for poaching are still rare. The Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN) needs more funding to really make a sizeable difference. Thorough, intelligence-led investigations into poaching need man-power and time to come to fruition and PERHILITAN needs the funds available to undertake these investigations.

Dr Pakeeyaraj Nagalingam, a veterinarian who took part in Sabre’s rescue, said, “authorities responsible for enforcement must work harder and smarter if we want to conserve wildlife in Sabah.” Bribery and corruption is still rife amongst enforcement agencies and government oversight, along with national-level commitments to bringing poaching under control would ensure more poachers are brought to justice under Malaysian law.

It’s a race against time, and the government has to take the lead

With demand set to fall in Chinese markets, and religious leaders working to change community attitudes, the survival of the remaining population of elephants in Malaysia’s national parks may ultimately depend on the government’s ability to improve their law enforcement. National commitments to reducing poaching and improved funding for PERHILITAN will allow more comprehensive and thorough investigations to bring the poaching issue under control in the region.

It may already be too late for the Sumatran Rhino population, but for the dwindling population of Bornean Pygmy Elephants and other endangered species, decisive action can’t come soon enough.