From the illegal trafficking of pangolin scales and rhino horns to the smuggling of live corals, the 29th International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2019) was replete with tales of the grim and increasingly depressing wildlife trade around the world. The conference was held in Kuala Lumpur for the first time, from July 21-15.

(See story on the conference here. Photo above shows Planet Indonesia executive director  Adam Miller [left] with staff members in the midst of field work. Miller says the agency’s strategy in stopping the poaching of wildlife in Kalimantan came from first listening to the local communities [see below]. Photo: Planet Indonesia)

With illegal wildlife trafficking valued by the World Economic Forum at between US$7bil and US$23bil (RM29bil and RM95.3bil), it’s not surprising that the networks – usually run by organised crime syndicates – have become more sophisticated, even taking, increasingly, to online and social media platforms to escape detection.

Two studies – “Social Media as a New Platform of Wildlife Trade” by Helene Birot and “Comparison of Turtle Trade in Physical Markets and Online Platforms” by Dr Yik Hei Sung – presented during the congress showed how closed Facebook groups and DMs (direct messages) on Instagram are emerging as the new threat.

Hong Kong University School of Biological Sciences’ Yik said his study showed that there are now more sellers of endangered turtles for the pet trade on social media than Internet forums on the subject.

“(This is because) it can reach more people. Sellers are also more cautious now. For example, they would put up photos of a turtle with messages saying that they have kept this animal for 2,000 days or that it needs 200ml of water per day. This is a hint that the animal is on sale for HK$2,000 or HK$200 (RM1,000 or RM100),” he said.

This is how illegal traders avoid having their posts taken down for violating social media rules or being detected by authorities, explained Yik.

Asked if Facebook could do more to shut down such closed groups selling wildlife, Birot, of the Little Fireface Project based in Indonesia, said the sellers could easily go on to set up other groups or find other social media platforms. Monitoring by the Little Fireface Project of the sale of slow lorises showed repetitive posts or users with different Facebook accounts as well as sellers who kept changing their names.

“The best is government action – more confiscations and prosecution against those sellers.
“The most powerful thing, though, is to educate the people. If there are no customers, there will not be any wildlife trade,” said Birot.

Improving Livelihoods

With the authorities engaged in what seems to be a valiant but increasingly futile battle against the wildlife trade, conservationists are taking the fight to the people.

Planet Indonesia executive director and founder Adam Miller said the agency’s strategy in stopping the poaching of wildlife in Kalimantan came from first listening to the local communities.

Aiming to combat wildlife trade in priority sites even before the trade happens, Planet Indonesia has set up Conservation Cooperatives to provide services to reduce socioeconomic inequalities among these communities. Led by the communities themselves, the cooperatives engage in the management of these protected areas while acting to improve the people’s livelihood and access to healthcare and education by helping to kickstart micro enterprises, creating a savings and loan programme, and providing mentoring skills.

“We started by listening to those involved in the illegal (wildlife) trade and logging, and forest clearing and we found that there are three main reasons why they poached,” said Miller.

“Firstly, for the sustainability of their farms – whether they can keep their farms – and access to healthcare and education. For example, people spend lots of money to send their children to school while at the same time, their needs aren’t met.

“What do we do then? We go to the bank and for these communities, the bank is the forest,” he said.

Miller, whose work has won him an award from the Future For Nature Foundation, said although prosecution of those engaged in the illegal wildlife trade is important, usually, in such cases, the animals are already dead or, worse, habituated to humans.

“When it comes to this, conservation has already failed. When it comes to stopping at source, you’re stopping it before it happens and while the animal is still in the forest,” he pointed out.

So far, Planet Indonesia’s work has benefited over 15,000 individuals and 3,010 households, with a 56% reduction in primary rainforest loss and a 15% to 30% improvement in livelihood within six months of a household joining the cooperative.

Engaging Orang Asli

In her presentation on “Changing Mindsets and Attitudes to Save the Sunda Pangolins in Peninsular Malaysia”, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu’s Dr Chong Ju Lian said conservation of the animal – known as the world’s most trafficked mammal – had to come from within a community.

“It cannot come from outside. There needs to be a softer approach. When we have outreach programmes with the Orang Asli kids, we make attempts to talk to their parents as well.

“A lot of them are aware (of the law and the threatened status of pangolins in Peninsula Malaysia) and although they continue to sell these animals on the sly, they know they are totally protected and cannot be eaten by the Orang Asli in Malaysia,” she said.

“We have to look into the human aspect of conservation as well as for more sustainable consumption and livelihood practices,” said Chong, who is also part of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group as well as an associate of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia.

Engagement with local communities, she added, is increasingly recognised worldwide as playing a crucial role in conservation and deterring poaching.

However, getting local community support is not easy, admitted Chong who is working with various Orang Asli groups, as this often involves complex issues that are often very specific to a site and community.

Changing Attitudes

Wildlife conservation must engage local communities

Perhilitan’s community-based conservation programme for pangolins includes holding activities in schools, such as colouring and poster competitions. This is the programme’s launch at Sekolah Kebangsaan Batu 14, Tapah, Perak, on Nov 18, 2018. Photo: Perhilitan

Malaysia’s Wildlife and National Parks Department’s (Perhilitan) Tan Poai Ean, who spoke on Community-based Conservation of Sunda Pangolins in Batang Padang, Perak, said a perception study among members of a Semai tribe in November 2018 showed that 42% had heard of but never seen a pangolin in the area while another 16% had not seen a pangolin within the last three years.

“Fifty-five percent of the respondents wished to protect pangolins and their habitat,” she said, adding that the smaller numbers of the scaly anteater had led to so many more termite mounts that the Semai community now describe their forest as “sick”.

Tan’s team has devised a community-based conservation programme for the pangolins that includes holding activities in schools, such as colouring and poster competitions as well as origami demos and cultural dances.

The programme was launched at Sekolah Kebangsaan Batu 14, Tapah, Perak, on Nov 18 last year.

Others in the pipeline are developing a module for pangolin conservation in the Semai langugage, national guide training and licensing, and ranger training.

Aimed at involving the local community in conserving the pangolins, the programme is also targeted at improving their livelihood through sustainable conservation in Batang Padang, Perak, a hotspot for poaching.

“It takes time to change attitudes,” said Tan.