Outrage as snakes saved en route to HK end up in Malaysian restaurants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am

Wildlife officials feted this month for rescuing 2,400 snakes from being smuggled to Hong Kong are now under fire - after quietly auctioning them for consumption in Malaysian restaurants instead.

The live banded rat snakes, originally from Thailand, had been intercepted as they passed through Penang airport.

'Atrocious ... saved from one pot only to be boiled in another,' said lawyer and animal rights activist Narayan Surendran, who lodged a police report on Wednesday demanding a thorough investigation.

'It is illegal to sell protected species. Knowing how snakes are gutted alive in eateries the department could be also guilty of abetment in inflicting cruelty to animals.'

The Wildlife Department officials behind the sale said that releasing the Thai snakes into the local environment would damage the ecological balance.

WWF-Malaysia said the sale could be perceived by the public as an endorsement of illegal animal trapping, smuggling and slaughter for skin, food and medicines.

'The authorities should have sent the snakes back to where they originated for release into the environment,' said Dionysius Sharma, director of WWF-Malaysia.

'The sad part is that this problem is not exclusive to snakes but for a whole gamut of other wildlife as well,' he said.

The Star daily reported on Monday that licensed wildlife dealers snapped up the snakes at the department's auction last week. It said a syndicate was thought to have bought the snakes for M$100 (HK$225) each.

The live snakes were found packed in blue plastic bags and hidden in crates ready to be flown to Hong Kong falsely labelled as manufactured goods when Wildlife Department officials, acting on a tip-off, pounced on the shipment on March 7.

'This is a disgrace ... the sale should not have happened at all,' said S.M. Mohamed Idris, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia. 'This incident will encourage more people to hunt, sell or eat protected wildlife.'

'I was full of praise for the department after they saved the snakes,' said a writer identified only as A.K. in a letter to The Star. 'But I was shocked and saddened when the snakes ended up in our cooking pots, this time legally.'

Wildlife Department director Hasnan Yusop defended the sale saying banded rat snakes were only 'partially protected' and the sale was allowed under the law to licensed dealers.

'We had to dispose of the snakes quickly before they died in the containers,' he said. 'If the snakes died on us we would be blamed for cruelty to animals,' The Star quoted him as saying.

But Mr Mohamed said it was not an isolated incident and criticised the department's apathetic attitude to wildlife protection.

'The export of protected species to Hong Kong and China is a thriving multimillion-dollar business that is happening right under the noses of the authorities,' he said.

'We need tough new laws and stiff sentences to protect what's left of our wildlife from [cooking] pots,' he said, adding offenders get off with a paltry fine ranging from M$300 to M$3,000.