A black hole of information surrounds the illegal trade in owls.
ARE our owls being poached for the dinner table? It would appear so, judging from huge seizures of dead birds in recent years by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan).
In November 2008, a raid in Muar, Johor, unveiled a mountain of 917 plucked owls, along with a stash of pythons, mouse deer, pangolins and various other protected species.
Two months later, in January 2009, 319 more owl carcasses were uncovered alongside 2,330 live clouded monitor lizards and a chopped up Malayan sun bear in a car repair shop in Kuantan, Pahang.
Main course: A collared scops owl. — Pic by Puan Chong Leong
The show wasn’t over. There were two more seizures in Johor that year: one yielded 37 owls in Yong Peng in July and another yielded 246 owls in Endau, in September.
Altogether, the period of 2008 to 2009 saw the biggest seizure of owls ever recorded in the country, a total of 1,519 carcasses. The seizures caught wildlife officials by surprise. There have been no indicators of local demand for owl consumption, and until those reports surfaced, large-scale trading of owls in Malaysia had completely escaped the radar.
“Local restaurants have been known to offer bear, fruit bats, deer, monitor lizards, turtles … it’s a long list, but we haven’t seen owls on offer,” says Traffic South-East Asia deputy regional director Chris Shepherd.
“We weren’t even looking at owls. We really hadn’t heard of people harvesting owl at all in Malaysia, and suddenly there was almost a thousand of them seized (in the Muar case).”
Magnificent: A brown wood owl. In Malaysia, owls are poorly studied and it is feared that they are being hunted for the exotic meat trade. — Pic by Chris Shepherd
Shepherd brings up the question of whether trade could have previously gone undetected.
Both Traffic and Perhilitan suspect the owls, along with the other wildlife confiscated, were due for export, probably to China which, despite local and international laws, has a thriving trade in endangered wildlife.
Malaysia is both an attractive supply and transit country, and many of the species found including pangolins and bear parts for example, are popular in the meat and traditional medicine markets of China, especially in Guangzhou.
There, an increasingly affluent population is fuelling demand for endangered wildlife traditionally regarded as culinary delicacies.
An immature barred eagle owl. — Pic by Puan Chong Leong
There are news reports of owls being among the many wildlife items served in restaurants in Guangzhou.
“It really does warrant further investigation,” says Shepherd, adding that funding limits what conservationists can do, and therefore, hardly any work has been conducted to investigate the extent of owl consumption in China’s meat markets.
After the flurry of seizures however, it seems the trail has run cold. A black hole of information surrounds the issue of poaching of wild owls.
Some of the culprits in the illegal trade have been penalised, however.
In the Muar case, one man was fined RM21,000 under four charges for cruelty to wildlife and illegal possession of 10 species, some protected, some totally protected and one immature protected animal.
Wildlife ecologist Puan Chong Leong will embark on a study on owl ecology. In front of him is a stuffed specimen of a collared scops owl from 1979, part of the Museum of Zoology’s collection at Universiti Putra Malaysia.
Similar charges were laid upon one man in the Yong Peng case, who was fined RM6,000, another in the Endau case, who was fined RM5,000, and yet another in the Kuantan case, who was fined RM3,000 for each charge, plus a one-month jail sentence to run concurrently.
Pahang Perhilitan director Khairiah Shariff was surprised with the first seizure as no one had heard of owl poaching before. Until now, she still has no idea where the birds came from and whether the trade has been going on, undetected.
The man arrested in Kuantan was 33, a sub-contractor and possibly a bystander. Like all the other men arrested, he would not reveal who “owned” the animals. The man arrested in the Muar case revealed that he had been collecting wildlife from locals and orang asli in Segamat and the Pahang border for the past five or six years prior to his arrest.
Barn owls formed the bulk of the seizures, making up 796 of the 917 birds confiscated in Muar. The species is commonly distributed throughout plantations across the peninsula. Other species seized included 95 spotted wood owls, 14 buffy fish owls, eight barred eagle owls, and four brown wood owls.
Could these have been taken from any of the millions of hectares of oil palm estate throughout Malaysia where, thanks to the building of nest boxes by planters to encourage the birds to breed and act as biological pest control agents, barn owls have grown in numbers?
One article published earlier this year in The Planter, a publication by the Incorporated Society of Planters, raised the possibility that barn owls might be taken directly from nest boxes or caught in nets set up across forest clearings.
However, officials at two big oil palm plantation companies, Kulim (Malaysia) Berhad and Sime Darby Plantation, say no anomalies in the number of barn owls present on their estates have been reported.
“It’s hard to say who are catching the owls,” says Shepherd. “It could be people who are working in the plantations themselves, or people employed by wildlife dealers to go after the birds. If you ask that about pangolins, or freshwater turtles or cobra, then yes they are.”
Shepherd explains how wildlife plunder generally happens all over the region: “In a rural area, there will be agents there willing to buy wild animals from you. But is this the situation with owls? We don’t know.”
It is difficult to say whether people should be worried about Malaysia’s owls, seeing little is known of them. However, Shepherd thinks if the trade is like what was seen in 2008 and 2009, and continues undetected, it can have a serious impact on wild owl populations.
“Owls are top predators, so they play a really important role. Generally they require a large territory and the habitat requirements for some species are a lot more specialised than others. And as for any species that occurs in low densities, wiping them out is much easier than those which occur in higher densities.”
Resources to investigate the trade in wild meat is now channelled to higher priority species, such as tigers and bears. So the trade in owls remain ignored.
“Very few people know about Malaysia’s owls and because of that, even fewer would care, and that should change. A lot of countries have an owl trust, or research and monitoring groups, but we don’t have that. Although there’s a growing interest in bird watching and bird conservation, it hasn’t gotten to the point where it is of benefit to the owls yet.”
Over two years have passed since the 2008 and 2009 seizures, and questions still remain. Is it still happening? Exactly how big is the industry, and was that just the tip of an iceberg? Unfortunately, it looks like we are unlikely to be receiving answers any time soon.
Scoping the owl