By Tan Cheng Li
Serows are being hunted and traded in Peninsular Malaysia, in violation of strong wildlife laws.
We all know about tigers, elephants and rhinos going extinct. But there is one little-known animal that is just as endangered – the Sumatran serow (Capricornis sumatraensis). This antelope-like mammal inhabits mainly an unforgiving habitat of steep forested mountains, limestone hills and quartz ridges, and so have remain little-studied.
However, they have not escaped the scrutiny of poachers. Just like tigers, pangolins, turtles, tortoises, sun bears, rhinos and deer, serows, too, are hunted for their meat and body parts.
The easy availability of serow meat in exotic meat restaurants, as well as seizures of serow body parts (used in traditional medicine and for purported magical purposes) from smugglers reveal that hunting of this species might well be rife.
Researchers from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring group, have raised concerns that poaching is driving the species to decline in Peninsular Malaysia.
A paper, Observations of Illegal Trade in Sumatran Serows in Malaysia by Traffic South-East Asia regional director Dr Chris R. Shepherd and programme manager Kanitha Krishnasamy, states that “despite robust legal protection, widespread poaching and illegal trade continues”.
“Few people know what serows are or are even aware of their existence, and therefore this remarkable animal receives little attention from conservationists, researchers or enforcement agencies,” they say.
Of the six species of serow found worldwide, only one occurs in Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand.
Though found throughout the peninsula, they appear to be concentrated largely in the north, especially in the states of Kelantan, Perlis and Perak. Many of the populations are believed to be small and isolated.
In 1936, the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge in Ulu Klang, Selangor, was gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary chiefly to protect the serow.
The species, however, is rarely seen there now due to hunting. It suffers a similar fate in Bukit Takun, Selangor, and also Genting Highlands.
Aside from being hunted for trade, the species is also threatened by habitat destruction caused by limestone quarrying, logging and habitat fragmentation by roads, plantations and other human-altered landscapes.
All these have pushed the species to the category of “vulnerable to extinction” in the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In order to highlight the threats to the serow and its conservation needs, Traffic had compiled information on illegal hunting and trade of the species between 2003 and 2012. Serow meat is prized among consumers of wild meat.
In a 2012 survey of restaurants serving such fare, Traffic researchers discovered serow to be the most commonly observed totally protected species on the menu, being sold for up to RM30 per serving. Of the 165 restaurants that were surveyed in Peninsular Malaysia, 18 offered serow meat: Johor (six), Pahang (five), Perak (three), Malacca (three) and Selangor (one).
Based on seizure reports, the researchers found that at least 10 serows were hunted in the Belum-Temengor forest in Perak between 2009 and June 2013. Serow hunting is known to be both targeted and opportunistic. In forests where wildlife poaching is common, the species is also threatened by snares, which indiscriminately kill a wide range of species.
In April 2012, Traffic staff had encountered a man who had a serow head soaking in oil, at a rest stop along the East-West Highway, some 15km from Belum-Temenggor forest. The following month, Traffic researchers detected a serow hunter on an online forum frequently used by army personnel. The hunter had explained in detail how he tracked the elusive animal in the Temengor forest, the weapons used, and hunting hotspots.
The serow is totally protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. So, anyone found guilty of hunting, taking or keeping serow parts or derivatives is liable to a fine of between RM100,000 and RM500,000. The minimum fine goes up to RM200,000 if the offence involves a female serow, and RM150,000 if it is a juvenile serow. Offenders also face a possible jail term of up to five years.
Also, the serow cannot be traded internationally, as it is on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, anyone caught importing or exporting serow parts can be fined between RM200,000 and RM1mil, and can be jailed for up to seven years.
Despite laws with bite, there has been minimal prosecutions. The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) has recorded only 10 confiscations of serow parts in the 10 years from 2003 to 2012, and only five cases resulted in convictions (see table).
One of the goriest find was that of six chopped up serows, which were being boiled by a couple who were both bomoh (shaman) in March 2007, in Lenggong, Perak.
However, for reasons unknown, the couple, said to have been using serow parts for healing rituals for over 35 years, were not prosecuted.
Information on illegal trade of serows which has been collected by Traffic has been passed on to Perhilitan for action.
Unfortunately, the researchers say the outcome of these reports is not often known or made publicly available. They urge Perhilitan to intensify monitoring of restaurants selling wild meat, traditional medicine shops and faith healers, and to take action against violaters. They also call on the judiciary to issue maximum penalties to offenders, to serve as a deterrent.