Malaysia: Scent of decline hangs heavy

Ahmad Fairuz Othman New Straits Times 24 Aug 17;

TWO issues affecting forestry and wildlife in Johor were recently exposed and seriously need looking into.

The first is poaching of the valuable agarwood resin, which is only found in the wild. This illicit activity is being carried out by foreign poachers, who would spend several weeks in jungles such as the Endau-Rompin National Park.

A case early this year involved five Cambodian men and a 55-year-old Malaysian woman of Cambodian descent, who was their getaway driver.

They were caught while driving out of the jungle in a Toyota Hilux four-wheel drive with seven gunnysacks of agarwood worth RM20,000 and totalling 25kg.

Their illicit activity deep in the jungles of central Johor were sniffed out by the state Forestry Department and Wildlife and National Park Department (Perhilitan) in a joint operation with the army and police under a National Blue Ocean Strategy initiative.

The officers stopped the group as they ended their three-week “jungle expedition” in Jalan Kahang-Peta, Kluang, at 6.25pm on March 11.

The five Cambodian men were also in possession of the liver of a monitor lizard, which is a protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

The men were jailed five months after pleading guilty at the Kluang Sessions Court to the possession of agarwood. They were also charged separately for possession of entrails of a monitor lizard.

The woman, however, pleaded not guilty to the same charges and is awaiting trial.

Rosli Zakaria, my colleague in Terengganu, once wrote an exclusive story in the New Straits Times about agarwood and how it was regarded as the green gold of the rainforest.

This highly-prized resin is becoming rare due to illegal felling.

Rosli explained how there were two agarwood species in the country, the Aquilaria malaccensis (gaharu) and Aquilaria hirta (chandan).

The value of the resin is astounding as Grade A agarwood resin could fetch RM25,000 per kg while Grade C could easily cost RM2,500 per kg.

If not stopped, this lucrative but illegal trade could spell disaster for our rainforests.

There needs to be more effort to drive home the message that such activities will be dealt with under the law. Enforcement needs to be stepped up under the 1Malaysia Biodiversity Enforcement Operation Network, a partnership between the military and Natural Resources and Environment Ministry to control poaching of wildlife and preserve biodiversity in national parks.

Perhilitan revealed last year that Malaysia lost RM123.17 million worth of forest produce, such as gaharu and wildlife, between 2002 and 2013 because of encroachment on national parks.

Francis Cheong, who is with a non-governmental organisation focusing on conserving wildlife in Johor, said illegal harvesting of agarwood was mostly done by Cambodian, Thai or Vietnamese poachers in recent years.

“Most of the poachers come from these countries. Some people regard Cambodians as experts in agarwood harvesting.

“Due to the depletion of agarwood in their home countries, they come to Malaysia.”

Cheong said agarwood, or aloeswood, was in high demand in the Middle East as it was a vital ingredient in perfumes.

“The Chinese also use it to make incense and that’s why it is highly sought-after in Hong Kong.”

The second issue concerns elephants encroaching on human settlements in Johor.

Though such occurrences are a norm for residents in Mawai near Tanjung Sedili, Kota Tinggi, and Kahang in Kluang, the people are concerned about their frequency in the past three years.

A 33-year-old Indonesian plantation worker was believed to have been trampled to death by elephants in Ladang Tunjuk Laut, Tanjung Sedili, on June 21 this year. Since then, there were claimed sightings of the mammals along the Kota Tinggi-Mersing trunk road and six elephant encounters by residents in Kampung Lukut, Kota Tinggi.

Mawai resident Badrul Zaman Abu Samah, 51, said people were living in fear and worried about the safety of their loved ones, especially their children.

“I have been seeing elephants in my village since my childhood. But, those encounters in the past were few and far between.

“Back then, elephants would roam into our banana plantations or smalholdings twice a year. But, this month alone, I have seen herds of elephants near the village several times.”

Malaysian Nature Society vice-chairman Vincent Chow said elephants would venture out of their natural habitat if that habitat was disturbed.

“The areas around Mawai and Sungai Panti are part of the migratory routes and feeding ground for elephants. Any disruption will make elephants seek food and water elsewhere.”

Badrul and Chow have high hopes for an elephant sanctuary that will be developed this year in Panti.

One of the priority projects under the 11th Malaysia Plan, a 100ha sanctuary will comprise two development phases under a RM39 million allocation from the Federal Government.

Johor Health, Environment, Education and Information Committee chairman Datuk Ayub Rahmat had said that the second phase could involve the state government roping in the private sector to invest RM30 million to provide chalets and other tourism infrastructure at the sanctuary.

The sanctuary will have up to 75 elephants. Hopefully, this would help to preserve the 140-to-150 elephant population in Johor.

The writer is NST Johor bureau chief. When not working, he loves driving along the coastal highway and trunk roads of Johor. A lover
of food, music and theatre, he
recommends everyone to try Johor’s version of ‘ais kacang’ which is drenched in chocolate sauce.