900 Oven-Ready Owls, 7,000 Live Lizards Seized in Asia
for National Geographic News
|November 18, 2008|
More than 7,000 live monitor lizards, almost 900 owls—plucked and plastic wrapped for easy cooking—and other wild animals were seized in two raids in a single week by Malaysian officials earlier this month.
Experts on illegal wildlife trade expressed astonishment at the huge number of rare owls seized.
"It's the first time we've ever seen a big shipment like this of owls," said Chris Shepherd, a senior program officer for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
The scale of both hauls indicates that Asian wildlife smuggling is growing more sophisticated, Shepherd said.
"Shipments this size show that the trade is becoming more and more organized by syndicates, rather than just opportunistic individuals trying to make a buck off a few animals," said Shepherd, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The first of the two raids—carried out by the country's Department of Wildlife and National Parks—took place on November 4 in the town of Muar on the southern tip of Malaysia.
In a freezer and storage room, agents found 796 barn owls, 95 spotted wood-owls, 14 buffy fish-owls, 8 barred eagle-owls, and 4 brown wood-owls.
The owls, smaller than chickens, had been frozen. Their feathers had been removed, but their heads and feet were intact—a sign that the owls were to be sold as food. The birds are also in demand in Guangzhou, China, where
they are sold in wine as tonics and cures for headaches.
"I've heard of owls being used for superstition and in traditional medicine, but I've never heard of anybody eating them," said Colin Poole, director of the Asia program for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"There must be some market specifically for owls."
The haul also included live monitor lizards and live juvenile wild pigs. Only parts were found from other animals: wild pig, Malayan porcupine, reticulated python, Malayan pangolin, greater mouse deer, and sun bear (sun bear photo and facts).
A local man was arrested at the raid. But after pleading "not guilty" and posting bail of 19,000 ringgits (U.S. $5,300), he was released three days later.
Since Muar is a port town, experts believe the shipment was probably headed China, where the demand for game meat and for wildlife used in traditional medicine is driving the Asian trade.
All of the species seized in Muar are protected to some degree under Malaysian law. Sun bears, in particular, are banned from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Some Chinese covet the bear's bile as medicinal, and its paws are considered delicacies.
Poaching fueled by such demand "could easily wipe out the species," said Siew Te Wong, a University of Montana biology Ph.D. student who has been studying the small bears in the Malaysian part of Borneo island for ten years.
Three days after the Muar raid, agents acting on a tip obtained during the seizure raided a storage facility in the town of Segamat, where they found more than 7,000 live clouded monitor lizards.
The lizards were also likely destined for dining tables in China, according to the international conservation organization WWF.
CITES prohibits international trade of the roughly one-and-a-half-yard-long (one-and-a-half-meter-long) reptiles, which range throughout Southeast Asia.
Large-scale commercial traders buy wildlife "dirt cheap" from local people working in plantations or in the forests, according to Shepherd, of TRAFFIC.
"They have massive networks spread all over the countries in Southeast Asia," he said.
"You can go to any village and everyone knows that if you catch, for example, a pangolin [scaly anteater], you can sell it."
In 2005 countries in the region formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, or ASEAN-WEN, to combat illegal wildlife trade.
The crackdown sparked by the new collaboration seems to be bearing fruit.
In July officials in Indonesia seized a China-bound shipment of 14 tons of scaly anteaters. And during a raid in Vietnam, officials found 24 tons of the anteaters, which had been shipped from Indonesia.
"Historically, governments [in the region] have reacted with skepticism about the scope of the problem," said Michael Zwirn, director of U.S. operations for the Wildlife Alliance, based in Washington, D.C.
"These kinds of large shipments indicate the severity of the issue," he said.
"We hope that governments will look at this and realize that their natural heritage is being siphoned off."
But ASEAN-WEN is not yet functioning properly, due to a lack of resources, experts warn.
TRAFFIC's Shepherd says the chances of any given trader getting caught are still "fairly slim."
"If they do get caught, the penalties are very small and definitely not a deterrent," he said.
The local man arrested in the Muar raid, for example, had been arrested on the same kinds of charges a few years earlier.
Poole, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: "It's important to do these busts. But following through and making sure that these people are prosecuted to the extent of the appropriate laws, I think, is critically important."
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