Tiger eyes. Crocodile penis (yes, really). Pangolin meat. Enter a restaurant in Malaysia, and you might see all of them on the menu.
The country has long been regarded as a strategic transit point for smuggling wildlife parts and products to other Asian countries. But now recent evidence from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization, shows a spike in Malaysian demand for wildlife products—in particular, from the exotic food market.
According to Kanitha Krishnasamy, TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia program manager, restaurant demand for wildlife has eclipsed demand from purveyors of traditional medicine or decorative objects like figurines and bracelets.
The products come either from wildlife traffickers within Malaysia or from smugglers landing boats from elsewhere in the region along the country’s long, porous coastline.
Smugglers frequently change their modus operandi, Kanitha Krishnasamy said, using “sophisticated concealment methods that make it challenging to detect them.” Animal products and even live animals are hidden in, for example, shipping crates, tins, or sacks marked as textiles or soybeans.
Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim, enforcement director of Malaysia’s Wildlife and National Parks Department, told the New Straits Times that Malaysia allows restaurants with valid licenses to sell the meat of protected animals—if it comes from sources the government deems legitimate.
But many restaurants sell illegal meat brought in by poachers and smugglers that, Kadir says, is “only sold to known or frequent customers.” Word of mouth and social media inform patrons about trending exotic dishes.
Some of the other animals on Malaysian menus: sun bears, leaf monkeys, clouded leopards, serow (goat-antelopes), and lizards. Asian giant soft shell turtles, which are endangered, are increasingly popular. Interested in dining on a sambar deer (staple food of tigers) or a muntjac (barking deer)? Those are options too, even though a moratorium bans the sale of both species.
It’s not cheap to partake of these animals. While serow meat fetches seven dollars a slice, a portion of crocodile penis costs up to $58. Tiger eyes command $170 each, pangolin meat goes for $300 a kilogram, tiger soup is $320 a bowl, and a whole clouded leopard will set you back by $5,700.
A violation of Malaysia’s Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 can bring a maximum penalty of $10,000, or a two-year prison sentence. Earlier this year, a man was fined $7,000 for illegally possessing 10 pythons, 3 giant tortoises, 9 leatherback turtles, and 26 frogs. All were destined for restaurants.
In early December, the Wildlife and Parks Department raided a pig abattoir in Wakaf Tapai in Marang in northern Malaysia and found about $12,000 worth of endangered animal products. That brings the total number of cases this year to 13—up from 6 last year.
Despite the increase in demand, Kadir says that exotic meat sales haven’t yet reached a critical level. The country’s intelligence unit is working with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to monitor websites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Mudah, a Malaysian network, with the aim of curbing illegal trade on the Internet.
“Those selling wildlife meat illegally and those who consume them will be investigated,” he said. “DNA anaysis will be carried out on the wildlife meat to determine if it’s from the wild.”
But Kanitha is worried. She argues that although Malaysia’s wildlife protection law has teeth, it is strictly confined to the peninsula, not the self-governing Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.
“The wildlife protection laws in Sabah and Sarawak are outdated,” she said.
In those states local people can sell up to five kilograms (11 pounds) of meat from endangered wild animals. “The meat,” said Sabah Wildlife Director William Baya, “is sold at weekly markets or to roadside stall operators,” especially in areas least monitored by enforcement agents or far removed from regional wildlife department offices.
Kadir admits that while his departments periodically conduct raids and checks, the complex Malaysian legal system makes it too easy for lawbreakers. “Offenders get away easily due to technical issues during investigation and prosecution,” he said.
It looks like tiger soup may not be off the menu yet.