By Karen Bong
KUCHING, Nov 17: Sarawak Forestry Corporation’s (SFC) wildlife enforcement officers, affectionately known as “polis sayur” (vegetable police), stand as the unsung heroes and guardians of Sarawak’s rich biodiversity.
Clad in polo green shirts, khaki cargo pants, and berets, these officers diligently patrol markets to investigate illegal wildlife activities, including the sale of turtle eggs, exotic meat, and endangered plants.
It was in 2020 that it became imperative to make the presence of these officers known to the public. The first initiative involved venturing into markets to scrutinise and address any instances of illegal wildlife trading.
Displaying remarkable courage, unwavering determination, and the right attitude, enforcement officers frequented markets every weekend. Their distinctive green polo shirts earned them the moniker ‘polis sayur’.
These wildlife rangers work tirelessly on the front lines, enforcing laws and regulations related to wildlife protection, monitoring and patrolling natural parks and reserves, as well as apprehending individuals engaged in poaching, illegal logging, and wildlife trafficking.
These officers are equipped with not only intelligence gathering and investigation skills, but also combat, tactical and survival skills to navigate dangerous, aggressive and unprecedented situations.
Over the ensuing years, SFC garnered recognition as an effective enforcement agency. The legacy of ‘polis sayur’ has transcended to a higher echelon, symbolising their ongoing commitment to safeguarding Sarawak’s natural heritage.
Unsung heroes protecting Sarawak’s natural treasures
Mohd Arif Suhai, a 34-year-old enforcement officer from SFC’s Sibu regional office, expressed immense pride in his role, highlighting its competence compared to other enforcement authorities in the country.
Serving in the SFC for 13 years, he only joined the Enforcement and Protection Unit in 2020.
Although still new in the field, Mohd Arif, along with colleague Mohammad Norazlan Jamil, was recognised by the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2021 for refusing bribery during an enforcement operation.
He acknowledged that among the challenges in their line of duty is having to face poachers and traffickers who may be armed and posed a significant risk with apprehending them, apart from encountering wild beasts or animals.
“One of my interesting experiences include dealing with illegal poachers and immigrants who encroach into our land given that many of our parks are located at border areas. It is quite challenging but if there is an offence committed, we will conduct a thorough investigation including checking if they have entry permits and the seriousness of the offences,” he told DayakDaily when met during SFC’s Integrity Day 2023 at Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK) yesterday (Nov 16).
On the most important criteria to become a wildlife ranger, Mohd Arif emphasised that it is not overcoming the fear of wild animals which would come with experience but upholding high integrity.
“As enforcers of the law, strictly upholding integrity and discipline as well as bravery is most crucial. Facing wild animals is one of the challenges, but we go through various trainings and courses before going down to the field,” he added.
Mohd Arif was among the latest batch of 30 officers who have completed their training at the Police Training Institute (Pulapol) in early November.
Jenny Machau, 35, a wildlife officer from SFC headquarters, is proud that SFC is doing great work in protecting Sarawak’s huge wildlife and biodiversity as more cases are being uncovered and intercepted.
She shared that one of the notable cases was in 2019 where its enforcement team seized 148 hornbill casques (the golden-yellow horn) in a raid operation.
“SFC was shocked by the discovery and I believe it was a wake up call for Sarawak on the need for heightened vigilance as there are people stealing our natural resources.
“It is due to the improved detection and investigative skills of our officers who are active on the ground that have contributed to the increasing number of illegal wildlife cases being uncovered in Sarawak.
“I find fulfillment in my work, even though the field has few women. I believe that women should not hesitate to join the force, despite the challenges and risks we may encounter,” stated Jenny, who has dedicated two years to the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC).
She emphasised that enforcement stands as a crucial pillar safeguarding Sarawak’s natural treasures, complementing education, awareness, and other conservation initiatives.
Integrity and technology in safeguarding Sarawak’s biodiversity
SFC chief executive officer Zolkipli Mohamad Aton pointed out that the “polis sayur” are not just enforcers of the law, but the protectors of Sarawak’s legacy and natural treasures.
Speaking on Integrity Day 2023, themed ‘Illegal Wildlife Trade Combat: Digital Vigilance and Corruption-Free Approach’, he said SFC is dedicated to intensifying efforts to stop the unlawful exploitation of Sarawak’s precious wildlife and their habitats.
“This involves enhanced monitoring, stricter law enforcement and collaboration with local, national and international agencies as well as local communities. Through cooperation and mutual understanding, we can make a real difference,” he said.
Zolkipli added that SFC is also leveraging on technology to improve surveillance, data collection and information sharing to combat illegal activities more effectively.
“We also place strong emphasis on maintaining a corruption free environment as we acknowledged that corruption can undermine our efforts and harm our biodiversity.
“Let’s commit to doing what is right, supporting technology for the greater good and collectively rejecting corruption. Together we can ensure the ongoing protection of our forests, wildlife and the eradication of dishonest practices,” he added.
The importance of conservation
Deputy Minister for Urban Planning, Land Administration and Environment Datuk Len Talif Salleh pointed out yesterday illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest global illicit market behind firearms, drugs, and human trafficking, worth an estimated USD20 billion (RM100 billion) annually, which is 10 times the annual budget of Sarawak.
Comparatively, in the context of Malaysia’s 2024 budget of RM390 billion, the illicit trade constitutes 25 per cent of the entire national budget.
He emphasised that it is the magnitude of the illegal wildlife trade that the Sarawak government is serious in tackling this issue in the State.
Wildlife enforcement officers are at the forefront of conservation efforts, playing a pivotal role in preserving Sarawak’s biodiversity.
By protecting endangered species and their habitats, they contribute to the overall health of ecosystems and ensure the balance of natural processes.
Their challenging and often perilous work is essential for ensuring a future where diverse wildlife thrives, ecosystems remain intact, and humanity coexists harmoniously with the natural world.
As we acknowledge their efforts, it is crucial to support policies and initiatives that empower these officers in their mission to safeguard biodiversity. — DayakDaily