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Star 22 Nov
By Hilary Chiew
Thanks to alert from N. Sivasothi
Ever wondered how rare, endangered and totally protected animals, such as orang utans, tigers, elephants, gibbons, pangolins, slow lorises, cockatoos and macaws end up in theme parks and private zoos?
Well, there is this thing called Special Permit under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. It basically grants permission to keep totally protected species and is designed to regulate the collection of both local and foreign species by private individuals, theme parks and zoos.
The Natural Resources and Environment Minister approves or rejects applications for the permits based on the advice of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) director-general. The latter apparently does so through a Special Permit Committee filled up by divisional directors.
However, wildlife observers are questioning the committee's integrity as the growing number of theme parks and private zoos has led to many applications to keep wildlife, including highly endangered ones which are normally not traded.
The concern over the permits surfaced recently after two private parks, which hold valid Special Permits, were found to have orang utans without proper documents.
One park has 14 orang utans of questionable origins. Six of the 14 apes are Sumatran orang utans (Pongo abelii) but the other eight are only noted as Bornean species without specifications on which of the three subspecies they belong to.
The second park has one Sumatran orang utan with no documents.
The orang utan is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means they cannot be traded, due to their critically endangered status.
The Sumatran orang utan in particular, is in a precarious state as its population is estimated at around 7,500 individuals in the wild.
Hence, it is perplexing that Perhilitan - the principal CITES management authority of the country - had issued Special Permits for the apes in the first place.
Says a source from the zoo community: "Perhilitan should only approve the permit after it is satisfied that the animals were sourced legally. But in the case of Cites I species like the orang utan, it is near impossible to acquire them legally."
The orang utan smuggling came to light after Perhilitan ordered DNA finger-printing on 58 orang utans in seven zoos and theme parks in May: Malacca Zoo, Taiping Zoo, Zoo Negara, Johor Zoo, A'Famosa Resort, TC Arapaima and Bukit Merah Laketown Resort. Results showed 46 orang utans to be Bornean species and 12, Sumatran.
A Perhilitan press statement said five of the 12 Sumatran orang utans were brought in before CITES came into force in 1975, so their acquisition is above board. However, seven Sumatran orang utans from two facilities did not have proper documentation. Perhilitan has not named the two parks.
Requests to Perhilitan to name the species of eight other orang utans held by one of the park have gone unanswered but it is learnt that DNA results showed them to be the Southern Bornean subspecies (Pongo pymaeus wurmbii), found only in Kalimantan, Indonesia. If so, then the orang utans are likely to have been smuggled in too. Furthermore, wildlife officials from Sabah and Sarawak confirm that neither state has delivered any orang utans to the theme park.
Sabah is home to the Eastern Bornean orang utan (Pongo pygmaeus morio) and Sarawak, the Western Bornean orang utan (Pongo pymaeus pymaeus).
Wildlife conservationists are also dismayed over the flagrant claims of insitu conservation, humanitarian rescue and education by applicants to support their applications for Special Permits.
A wildlife trade observer says issuing Special Permits for totally protected species to theme parks and private zoos is perpetuating the illegal trade in wildlife.
He says all sorts of unsubstantiated claims are used in permit applications. One applicant who wanted to keep four palm cockatoos and two Moluccan cockatoos claimed that the birds were surrendered to him because their owners had no "proper permit and licence."
The same applicant had the previous year applied for a permit for two baby gibbons and a baby bear, which he had rescued from an Orang Asli settlement, in order to, nurse them back to health.
The source raises questions over the actual origins of the animals, and whether Perhilitan investigated the claims before issuing the permits.
The absence of a monitoring mechanism for animals kept under the Special Permit is another concern.
A source involved in investigating the wildlife smuggling notes that the Special Permit is akin to a carte blanche given to these facilities to own totally protected species. "It is a blatant disregard for CITES rules and regulations which Malaysia, as a signatory since 1977 must adhere to."
Although one applicant is allowed one Special Permit at any one time, the theme park with the six smuggled orang utans was issued two permits for 20 orang utans in November 2000, and these have been renewed annually.
The permit also allowed it to acquire not only orang utans, but also 150 species of both native and non-native fauna, including a number of Appendix I animals such as the gorilla, chimpanzee, giant panda and Komodo dragon.
Furthermore, the number of each species approved is outrageously high: 10 lowland gorillas, 20 chimpanzees, 10 white rhinos, 10 komodo dragons and 30 oryxs. In fact, the park was fined RM1,000 in July 2000 for having six orang utans without valid CITES documents.
Perhilitan, however, did not seize the apes. The park continued keeping them and was issued Special Permits to expand its orang utan family.
As for claims of education, wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC South-East Asia Programme Officer Julia Ng says visitors to theme parks are neither gaining any insight into the life of animals in the wild nor the threat they face. "What they see is unnatural behaviour of the animal playing golf and cycling. It sends out the wrong message that wildlife is meant to entertain humans."
She says there is also physical torture of animals when they are trained to perform tricks that are not their normal behaviour. "I have seen elephants repeatedly hit with the mahout's hook when they refuse to follow orders. I can see the scars on their foreheads."
Conservationists are calling for a re-examination of all Special Permits issued, and for abusers to be dealt with if the government is serious about its commitment to bio-diversity protection.
However, Perhilitan has not mentioned any plans to prosecute the two parks for their illegally sourced orang utans although it plans to repatriate the primates to Sumatra, an apparent move to fulfil its obligation as a CITES member.
Perhilitan enforcement director Misliah Mohamad Basir told an English daily that prosecuting the culprits might pose a challenge as the Sumatran orang utan, being a subspecies, may not qualify for total protection under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Corruption Agency is investigating the orang utan smuggling. Federal Territory ACA chief Chuah Chang Man says statements are being taken from several key figures and seven orang utans (four Sumatrans and three Borneans), now kept in the Malacca Zoo, have been micro-chipped as evidence.
Related articles on Singapore: wildlife trade
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