Clouded Leopard Trafficking from Brunei 2016

I felt I should write this article after obtaining details of a court case involving a Bruneian citizen caught red-handed whilst smuggling a clouded leopard across his country’s border into Sarawak.  Although it is now 2 years old, the story is still relevant as it reminds everyone that there are still people in Borneo willing to exploit rare and beautiful animals. Some details of this case have previously been reported in regional newspapers, for example in the The Borneo Post (17 October 2016).

I have interviewed the person who engineered the arrest of an animal trafficker selling a clouded leopard that had been raised in captivity in Brunei. In a typical story, two animals had been taken from the wild whilst very young, when no doubt they made delightful pets; they had since become a burden for their captor as they developed into young adults. Of course, even just keeping clouded leopards in captivity is illegal in Brunei (and Malaysia) but the owner went further by seeking to profit by selling one of these cats online, in fact via a Facebook site.

The site in question, bruneifm, a private Facebook group, was notorious for being an integral part of wild animal trafficking in Borneo and had previously advertised a range of other animals, for example hornbills, pangolins and slow lorises.

The arrest

Back in October 2016, this Facebook site was advertising 2 young adult clouded leopards in Brunei for 5,000 Brunei dollars (15,000 RM approx.) each. The seller included a video of the cats in the advert; they looked malnourished and ill cared for but several offers had already been made online. After the advert had been spotted, it was decided to set a trap for the seller by enticing him to sell one of the cats whilst being observed by wildlife authorities. This needed to be done quickly and so efforts were made to contact the relevant personnel in the Brunei Wildlife Department.

Meanwhile, the online seller was also contacted and turned out to be a Brunei army officer who had caught the cubs and was keeping them at his parent’s house in Tutong, Brunei. Now that they were more difficult to care for, he had decided to sell one: a win:win for him – less responsibility and a nice profit.

Having received no response from the Brunei authorities, our ‘anti-trafficker’ decided to contact the Sarawak Forestry Department instead and with them hatched a ‘sting’ to lure the seller across the Brunei-Sarawak border so that he could be arrested. However, the seller was reluctant to cross with the clouded leopard and wanted more money. Finally, after 2 weeks of negotiations, a much higher fee was agreed, 50,000 RM, to offset the risks of crossing the border and illegally selling the cat.

The sale was scheduled to take place at E mart in Desa Senadin, Miri where the seller arrived with a caged, drugged clouded leopard in the back of his car, only to be arrested by the waiting Sarawakian authorities.

The man and the charges he faced

As reported by the The Brunei Times (21 October 2016) in fact, two Brunei men were apprehended: Mohd Khairul Abdullah, a Brunei army officer and his accomplice, Abdul Rahim Taib; it is likely that one or both of these men have been involved in similar crimes before. They had drugged the animal, hidden it in a car and illegally driven it across the border. Only Mohd Khairul Abdullah was charged by the Sarawak authorities and he was prosecuted for illegally keeping a protected animal in captivity in Brunei, illegally offering a protected animal for sale on line and smuggling a protected animal across the Brunei-Sarawak border with intent to sell.

If found guilty of these offences, he could have been sentenced to a total of two year’s imprisonment and fined 25,000 RM.  However, he got away with it:  it seems he was released after two months in jail awaiting trial because of a legal technicality. He is a lucky man. It would be nice to believe that after he returned to Brunei, he was investigated by authorities there and punished appropriately.

The smuggled animal

The clouded leopard is listed as Totally Protected Wildlife under Malaysia’s Wild Life Protection Ordinance (1998) and its capture and export are also illegal under Brunei’s Wildlife Protection Act (1984). In other words, its importance, and the measures for its protection, have been well known in both countries for decades; there is no excuse for capturing, smuggling or selling such an animal.

This female clouded leopard is now under veterinary supervision in Matang Wildlife Centre, Sarawak where she has been since December 2016.  Although she has responded to professional care and is now held in a much larger enclosure, there is no possibility of releasing her into the wild: she is simply too traumatised and has insufficient skills to enable survival in her natural environment.

Clouded leopard facts

Clouded leopards are found in mountains and forests of Southeast Asia from the Himalayas eastwards through Southern China, Thailand, Peninsula Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. They can be regarded as ‘the smallest of the big cats’ and, although not closely related to other leopards, they are in the same subfamily as them as well as other big cats such as lions and tigers.

It is not a surprise to learn that poaching and habitat destruction has reduced both their distribution and numbers. Currently, the estimated wild population is 10,000, made up of individuals of the Sunda clouded leopard, Neofelis diardi, which occurs only in Sumatra and Borneo (and to which ‘our’ animal belongs) and the ‘mainland species’ Neofelis nebulosa ( N. nebulosa) that is found elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The website of the Clouded Leopard Project, www.cloudedleopard.org provides more detailed information on these beautiful animals. Also, Platt (2015) has described the increasing pressure on clouded leopard populations from poachers responding to dwindling tiger populations resulting from the continuing demand for their body parts in Chinese traditional medicine.

The clouded leopard smuggled from Brunei is probably an example of an additional population pressure: the trade of these animals for pets. The threat these cats are experiencing is shown by the recent extinction in Taiwan, confirmed in 2013, of a subspecies of the mainland clouded leopard, N. nebulosa brachyuran. Platt also described how social media is now being utilised in the illegal trade of clouded leopard body parts and how live clouded leopard cubs are being traded to be used as tourist attractions. In other words, the story of our clouded leopard here fits into the broader picture of animal trafficking.

Unfortunately, it isn’t known what has happened to the clouded leopard that remained in the smuggler’s house in Brunei. Is it still there, has another attempt been made to smuggle it or have the Bruneian authorities acted as they should in order to protect it?

What can we learn from this story?

Here is an example of how an individual’s actions led to an intervention that prevented the smuggling of a clouded leopard and has certainly improved the quality of its life. It also illustrates how the willingness and speed of action of a government body, in this case the Sarawak Forestry Department and Malaysian police, can lead to the exposure of an animal smuggler. It is a great shame that he wasn’t punished with a fine and imprisonment.

It may only have been a small victory but nevertheless it is valuable as an inspiration for others: be vigilant, monitor social media and be prepared to engage with relevant authorities! It also illustrates how the inactivity of other government authorities can hinder action against such animal smugglers.

The positives and negatives of this story almost balance each other: a clouded leopard is now living more comfortably in Sarawak and the animal trafficker is exposed; however, the clouded leopard involved can never be freed and the guilty man has avoided appropriate punishment.

References

http://www.borneopost.com2016/10/17.clouded-leopard-traders-to-be-prosecuted-in-court/-

Wong, A. (2016) Bruneians plead not guilty in clouded leopard case. The Brunei Times 21 October 2016 Pages 16-17.

Platt, J.R. (2015) Clouded Leopards Threatened by Sudden Increase in Poaching and Live Trade.  In blogs.scientificamerican.com 25 October 2015.

www.cloudedleopard.org the website of the Clouded Leopard Project.