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Malaysia to punish wildlife poachers more severely

KUALA LUMPUR (AP) – Poachers and smugglers of endangered animals in Malaysia now face tens of thousands of dollars in fines and mandatory jail time following the passage of a new law that activists said Wednesday was key to repairing the country's reputation as a hub for the illegal trade.

Malaysia's large swaths of jungle are home to many protected species such as the Malayan tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and clouded leopard. Activists say poachers have thrived because of lax laws, a lack of patrols and the ease with which many officers can be bribed.

Parliament's lower house last week passed the Wildlife Conservation Act, which increases some fines by 3,000 percent and imposes mandatory prison sentences for offenses such as hunting highly endangered species and laying snares to trap wildlife.

The act replaces a three-decade-old one that has long been criticized as insufficient to curtail the lucrative trade of endangered wildlife. Parliament's upper house is expected to pass it later this month before it takes effect.

Preetha Sankar, policy coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund's Malaysian chapter, said Wednesday that previous penalties "have been nothing more than a slap on the wrist."

According to the new law, people who illegally hunt or possess certain protected wildlife can be punished by a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit ($155,000) and mandatory imprisonment not exceeding five years.

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In addition, suspects caught with snares and other hunting equipment are now presumed to be using them illegally, unless proven otherwise. Authorities can also prosecute sellers who claim to sell traditional medicine that contain body parts or secretions of protected animals.

Chris Shepherd, an official with international wildlife activist group Traffic, said the act was "a huge step in the right direction" to help reduce Malaysia's role as a major player in the illegal wildlife trade.

The act also includes more animals among the list of protected ones and makes it easier for enforcement agencies to crack down on smuggling, Shepherd said.

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