Authorities in Malaysia’s Sabah state said Friday they would press for tougher wildlife laws to battle armed poachers after photos of carcasses of green turtles and Bornean Pygmy elephants were posted online and caught the attention of conservationists.
Sabah, on Borneo island, borders the Malaysian state of Sarawak and Indonesia’s Kalimantan province. It is also home to many endemic wildlife species, such as orangutan and rhinoceros.
Last month, villagers said they discovered the skeletal remains of about 100 green turtles scattered on the beaches on Bum-Bum Island near Semporna, a small town in Sabah. Residents also found two decomposed adult Bornean Pygmy elephants in different locations.
Masidi Manjun, Sabah’s environment and tourism minister, said his department was considering amending the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, a regional law that aims to protect endangered species in Sabah by imposing severe penalties on poachers.
The amendment would give wildlife laws more bite by changing the way cases play out in court and placing the burden of proof on the accused to present evidence proving one’s innocence.
“With the amendment, it means the accused will have to prove he didn’t kill it [the endangered wildlife animal] because at this point of time, the prosecutors have to come up with evidence to prove a person is guilty and this is not easy,” Masidi told reporters.
Sabah’s Forestry Department said poaching in the state had reached “pandemic proportions” and armed poachers encountered at checkpoints were often masked “and willing and able to inflict harm” on forestry guards.
“Although Forestry Department staff are armed, this is purely for self-protection and they are reluctant to use their licensed firearms against the poachers,” the department said in a statement posted on the homepage of its website. “Besides that, it is to avoid a firefight with the poachers which may result in an ugly scene.”
“The seriousness of this menace needs a concerted effort in unison, starting with the prosecution of the known and big-time perpetrators,” the statement said.
Authorities have arrested and detained at least three people on suspicion of involvement in the multiple slaughter of protected turtles. Officials said poachers would often remove the turtle meat, eggs and soft under shell before leaving the bones and hard-top shell.
Two Indonesian men have also been detained to assist authorities in the killings of the two elephants, officials said.
Endangered and protected
Green turtles and Pygmy elephants are endangered and protected, according to WWF Malaysia, an environmental conservation organization.
The Pygmy elephants are about 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) tall with shorter trunks. They are mostly found in the northeast corner of Sabah.
A wildlife conservationist told BenarNews that during the last three years, 41 Bornean Pygmy elephants had died in Sabah.
“Of these numbers, only nine deaths were due to natural causes,” the source said. “The others were illegally killed – either shot dead or poisoned.”
The Pygmy elephant’s population has dwindled to an estimated 1,300 to 1,500, down from more than 2,000 five years ago, according to Nurzafarina Othman, a conservation officer with the research and training facility Danau Girang Field Center.
“Rapid shrinkage of forest cover and large-scale encroachment on elephant corridors are the main factors behind this escalating problem,” she told BenarNews.
Rising ivory prices could be the culprit, she said.
“The black-market price of ivory has skyrocketed from $300 to $1,500 per kilogram in a span of five years,” an expert on current prices, who declined to be named, told BenarNews.
Sabah, which has more than 3.5 million residents, has a land area of about 72,500 square km (28,000 square miles). Riddled with wildlife and environmental protection issues, state assembly members unanimously supported a bill allowing several amendments to the 1997 wildlife law.
The new amendments, which took effect in July 2016, have doubled fines from 50,000 ringgit to 100,000 ringgit (U.S. $12,000 to $24,000) and mandatory imprisonment of six months to five years for poaching.
Most abundant species
The endangered green turtle (Penyu Agar to the locals) is the most abundant species in Malaysia. The turtle is either a black-brown or greenish yellow, but is called as such because of the greenish color of its cartilage and fat deposits
In August, Malaysian Customs officers in Sabah seized two containers with ivory and pangolin scales bound for shipment to China. Officials found 1,148 pieces of elephant tusks, as well as five tons of pangolin scales hidden in sacks of ground nuts.
Wildlife officials said villagers found this badly decomposed pygmy elephant at the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Sept. 29, 2017. [Courtesy of Sabah Wildlife Department]