by Roshan Guharajan//
Organised wildlife crime has already resulted in the loss of certain globally important species in Southeast Asia. Being one of the twelve mega-biodiverse nations, Malaysia must regard its biodiversity as an important national asset and take steps to avoid a similar fate. This is because organised wildlife crime involves not just plundering of our national assets but also illegal border crossings by poachers and various forms of smuggling, severely compromising our national security on multiple fronts. The consequences for some species have been dire: the Sumatran rhinoceros has gone extinct, while the tiger and banteng are in precarious positions. In fact, there are now less than 200 individual tigers in Malaysia, with the exact estimate from the recently completed National Tiger Survey not yet released to the public.
The heavy task of dealing with organised wildlife crime fell on the shoulders of various state forestry and wildlife departments including the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Parks, Yayasan Sabah Group and Sarawak Forestry Corporation. These agencies are staffed by mostly biologists, foresters and administrators, with few receiving formal and specialised training in counter-wildlife crime. Those that are placed in such positions may also be transferred to other roles, rendering any long term capacity building in counter-wildlife crime difficult. This situation has been further compounded by the slow reaction of previous administrations to act on evidence that wildlife crimes were growing in frequency and level of organization over the years.
The launch of the 1Malaysia Biodiversity Enforcement Operation Network (1MBEON) in 2014 was the first concerted attempt to use a holistic approach towards counter-wildlife crime. It relied most notably on personnel from the Malaysian Armed Forces. However, utilizing the armed forces to enforce civilian laws is probably not the best long-term solution to dealing with organised wildlife crime. With the launch of Ops Bersepadu Khazanah (OBK) in 2019, the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) began to play a much larger role in counter-wildlife crime via the General Operations Force (GOF). The Senoi Praaq battalions in particular were mobilized in the Peninsula, while the Tiger Platoons of the Sabah and Sarawak Brigades were mobilised in those respective states. OBK used the manpower and expertise of the GOF units in a complementary manner together with the experience of various forestry and wildlife authorities. OBK is considered by many in the conservation field to have been a strategic turning point in the war against organised wildlife crime groups, especially with the large and sustained number of personnel deployed. Before the launch of OBK, it was uncommon to see different authorities working together in such a coordinated way. The success of OBK is in no small part due to the strong support of the former Inspector General of Police, Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador.
Moving forward, we must learn two very important lessons from OBK in dealing with organised wildlife crimes. First, greater coordination among various forestry and wildlife authorities is needed. States have at least two authorities that deal with counter-wildlife crime (i.e. Selangor) while some have up to four (Sabah). Having so many authorities working independently and not wanting to enter each other’s turf has resulted in disunited effort. Second, counter-wildlife crime requires certain paramilitary expertise that is not sufficiently present in forestry and wildlife authorities. To realise these lessons, Malaysia has to consider some stark reforms in forest governance and policing.
Better coordination for counter-wildlife crime must occur at the state level. Forestry is already a state responsibility, but wildlife conservation should be further delegated to the Peninsula states as Sabah and Sarawak have complete control over this matter. This would mirror the situation in other federations like India and Australia. Further, the colonial-era legacy that separated wildlife (conservation-focused) from forestry (logging-focused) is no longer relevant and can be a stumbling block to counter-wildlife crime. Over time, state governments should look into the feasibility of unifying forestry and wildlife authorities into a single authority where possible. If this is not possible, then these separate authorities should be place under a secretariat that can better organise and coordinate inter-agency activities.
For organised wildlife crime groups, the successful removal of species from the forest is a critical component of the crime script. This involves getting poachers (foot soldiers) with sufficient knowledge of the targeted species and survival skills into the forest, where they must remain undetected by authorities till their task is completed. Even with more unified state-level authorities, it is unfeasible to rely solely on them to maintain a presence in forest reserves and protected areas. In this regard, we must draw on the experience and skills of the GOF. The predecessors of the GOF battalions, the Police Field Force, were activated by the colonial government to counter the communist threat in the Malaysian jungles. This involved extensive training in paramilitary jungle tactics, a skill that is much less likely to be used in current GOF roles. Close examination of the current modus operandi of poachers shows that they spend long periods (up to three months) in the forest. Poachers possess excellent jungle survival skills, are physically fit and will sometimes take extreme measures to avoid being detected. The paramilitary skills of the GOF including long-range forest patrols, setting up observation posts and close target reconnaissance are now much needed skills in counter-wildlife crime.
To better combat organised wildlife crime, certain GOF battalions should be re-tasked as Forest Police units. Ideally, these units could be seconded to a state-level counter-wildlife crime command composed of respective state police chiefs (Peninsula) or commissioners (Sabah and Sarawak) and respective state governments. Having the Forest Police units report to this state level joint command structure is better than a centralised one as states have complete jurisdiction over forests and either shared (Peninsula) or full (Sabah and Sarawak) jurisdiction over wildlife. Over time, it would be worth considering permanently placing the Forest Police under the command structure of the relevant state police chiefs or commissioners. This decentralisation would serve to empower state governments and grant them more tools at their disposal. In the case of Sabah and Sarawak, a state Forest Police would provide the much needed boost to the current authorities responsible for covering vast forested areas with limited manpower. State-level decision makers will also have more information on the specific sites that need attention, and would be able to respond faster.
With the state Forest Police using the relevant paramilitary skills to focus on forest patrols, state-level authorities could focus on other aspects of counter-wildlife crime. For example, analysts in state-level authorities could use Problem-oriented Wildlife Protection to focus on specific issues in counter-wildlife crime that patrolling alone will not address. By placing more of the on-site patrolling and enforcement duties on the Forest Police, state-level authorities can use their manpower for other critical duties such as human-wildlife conflict mitigation, wildlife monitoring, and captive breeding management.
With states focusing more on site-level interventions in counter-wildlife crime, national interventions can be led by a federal authority. WWF-Malaysia has proposed the setting up a Wildlife Crime Bureau under PDRM. However, given that PDRM already has immense responsibilities it would be better to have this bureau parked under the federal environment ministry. This bureau should be staffed by well-trained investigative officers whose main purpose would be to disrupt inter-state networks of organised wildlife crime and illegal international trade.
It is my hope that the momentum gained by OBK will not die down, but rather be permanently entrenched within Malaysia’s counter-wildlife crime response. OBK represented some of the best counter-wildlife crime work done in recent years, and with certain reforms and decentralisation this work can continue to protect our national biodiversity assets. As a nation, we must view organised wildlife crime as a major threat to our national security.
About the author
Roshan Guharajan is a Project Coordinator for Panthera Malaysia in Telupid, Sabah. He is also a PhD Candidate at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany. For eight years, he was involved in wildlife monitoring in large mixed-use forest landscapes, with a particular focus on large mammals. His interest is now in applied conservation, particularly in forest governance and policing for wildlife crimes. Roshan believes protecting biodiversity is an important national security mandate, and innovative holistic approaches are needed to ensure this.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Panthera Malaysia or Projek Pertiwi.
Photo taken by Djohan Shahrin.