Courts are Everything

In researching The Lizard King I discovered that historically the most important innovation in wildlife law enforcement was not more money or more cops, but a committed court.  The creation of the Wildlife and Marine Resources Division in the US Dept of Justice and its attendant Environmental Crimes Section in the wake of the Henry Molt reptile smuggling case was the single most important development in getting wildlife crimes prosecuted. AUSA (now judge) Chris McAliley modeled her prosecutorial office in Miami after the DOJ’s Environmental Crime Section as did a prosecutor in California, resulting in the two of the most effective wildlife enforcement jurisdictions in the world.   It’s worth adding that John Webb (below) was McAliley’s mentor.  As usual, Azrina Abdullah says it best:

Judges warm up to green issues  by Azrina Abdullah (22 Nov 2010)

MUCH has been said in my column and letters to the editor about the need for stronger enforcement and laws to shed Malaysia’s image as an illegal wildlife trade hub. The focus has been on enforcement. And to the government’s credit, laws have been improved and enforced, in addition to investigations by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission of a senior staff of the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).

However, many tend to forget that judges play an essential role in the efforts to reduce wildlife trafficking. It is only in recent years that the judiciary was recognised as a key agent in the efforts to protect wildlife in Southeast Asia. Much of this is credited to the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) which was established in 2005 by the 10 countries in the region to tackle wildlife trafficking. This is a business worth billions of dollars with little risk of getting caught, and if you do get caught, you’ll be out of the courthouse within minutes after paying a fine equal to a pupil’s daily lunch money.

Asean took this matter seriously and had its first meeting in Bangkok in 2006. After much discussions about the role of customs, police and wildlife departments in WEN, someone piped up “So what if we arrest the offender, have a strong case but the judge does not treat wildlife trafficking as a serious crime?” The room fell silent for a second, then the penny dropped. Of course! All that seizures, arrests and investigations will come to nought if the judiciary is not included as part of WEN’s efforts to reduce wildlife trafficking.

A few months after the meeting, John Webb and I sat together to figure out how we could train judges and prosecutors on wildlife matters. John, the assistant chief for the Environmental Crimes Section of the US Department of Justice, who looks more like John Wayne than the sleek looking lawyers in Law and Order, agreed that we needed to first get the highest level of the judiciary to buy into the training to ensure that the rest follow suit. We succeeded in getting the co-operation of several Asean chief justices on training on condition that we called it “workshop” because “judges know everything”.

So far, nearly 10 of these workshops have been held in the region, including Malaysia, and it is gratifying to know that some effect has taken place in our neighbouring countries with a module on wildlife trade law included in the judges in-house training, Green Benches (or environmental courts) placing priority on wildlife cases when there was not much interest before, and the workshop module which John and I developed was adapted for a similar training of the judiciary in Africa.

In Peninsular Malaysia, data from Perhilitan show that last year there was an increase in wildlife cases heard in court and offenders penalised compared to previous years. But the sentences seldom reflect the seriousness of wildlife trafficking. The workshops such as the ones conducted under Asean-WEN are essential for judges to enhance their knowledge and understanding of issues on wildlife management.

As much as judges feel they know everything (allegedly), wildlife cases continue to be treated as “fluffy”, not just in Malaysia but in the region, due to judges’ lack of understanding on how wildlife trafficking can adversely impact our environmental wellbeing. However, the sentences handed down recently by the High Court on wildlife smugglers is sending a positive message across the world that Malaysia’s judiciary is taking a bold step towards clamping down wildlife trafficking.

This must continue and wildlife matters should be included as part of a judge’s training or promotion, just as what the Asean-WEN workshop had achieved in the Philippines. As more of our species face extinction, the judiciary must draw the line that pillaging Malaysia’s precious wildlife will not to be tolerated and this should be reflected in the sentencing.
Azrina Abdullah is conducting research on the links between indigenous groups and wildlife trade. She was regional director of Traffic, an NGO which monitors the global wildlife trade. Comments:

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