Tuesday March 12, 2013
Arming wildlife warriors
SHAMSUDDIN OSMAN used to be a tour guide in Sabah. Today, he heads the Wildlife and National Parks Department’s (Perhilitan) Institute of Biodiversity. Aside from coordinating research programmes, the institute runs courses to equip the department’s 310 field staff with knowledge about conservation, law and enforcement, ecotourism and protected area management.
It has been almost 10 years since Shamsuddin made the jump from tourism to government service. The move was prompted by his concerns over illegal hunting – if left unchecked, he thought, there might not be any animals left for him to show people as a tour guide.
For nine years, Shamsuddin served as a Perhilitan enforcement officer, checking consignments, making arrests, coming up with proposals and writing papers. Three years into it, he took on the additional role of prosecuting officer, going to court to press charges against wildlife criminals.
As a result, he knows the system well and believes the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 will make a difference. “We will eventually see fewer cases, or fewer people at least, who want to venture into the illegal wildlife trade.”
Under the old legislation (Protection of Wildlife Act 1972), the risks of engaging in illegal wildlife trade generally only involved a compound. Shamsuddin explains why wildlife officers used to prefer issuing compounds over pressing charges: “If the case went to court, the criminal would get an even lower fine. However, the amount of compound we proposed was discretionary. For example, if the maximum fine was RM3,000, we could compound for RM1,500, because chances are, the court would only issue a fine of RM1,000.”
Under the new law, more cases are going to trial. In 2010, just before the new law was enforced, compounds made up 98% of the cases. Last year, 42% of the cases involved compounds, whilst 11% were court cases.
Shamsuddin says there are two deterrent factors at play now: the increased fine and possible jail time, and the threat of a court hearing. It is one thing to have to pay a fine, and quite another to end up with a criminal record. “Many people do not like that idea.”
He acknowledges that more court cases means added pressure on enforcement. He says the investigation paper is what will make or break a case. “If all the facts are complete and everything is in order and of the highest standard, the chances of winning is often very high. But if, for example, pictures taken of the evidence is not good, or the amount and composition of species are vaguely explained, then the chances of losing a case is there.”
In the past, when offenders were mostly issued with compounds, the requirements of an investigation paper were not always strictly observed. Now that more cases are going to trial, Shamsuddin places extra emphasis on making sure enforcement officers understand why they need to be meticulous – because court cases depend on it.
“Investigators got used to most cases involving only compounds. We want to erase that from their minds, and instill in them the mentality that 99 out of 100 cases will go to court, so there can be no room for challenges when they prepare the investigation paper.”
Perhilitan has 34 investigating officers and 18 prosecuting officers. The institute has in the past run environmental awareness programme on wildlife issues for deputy public prosecutors.
Stronger prosecution needed to deter wildlife crime