Stamps of disapproval

FEBRUARY 18 — Pos Malaysia recently announced that they will be releasing their first Exotic Themed postage stamps. Three exotic dishes are featured in this series: Sea Cucumber Salad, Turmeric Fried Grasshoppers and Porcupine Rendang.

While the former two sound delicious and warrant another discussion altogether, the focus of this article is on the porcupine rendang.

There is no denying that Pos Malaysia’s decision to place rodent rendang on a stamp has garnered backlash among conservationists and Nature lovers alike. Many of my colleagues expressed disappointment over such a move.

Though Pos Malaysia has since issued an apology, I am not fully convinced they have done anything wrong.

However, to understand this issue and subsequently form an opinion, we have to ask ourselves the following:

1. What is the conservation and legal status of porcupines in Malaysia?

2. Does placement of something on a stamp constitute its promotion?

Status and consumption of porcupines in Malaysia

There are three (3) species of native porcupines: the Malayan porcupine (Hystrix brachyura), the Brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus macrourus) and the Long-tailed porcupine (Trichys fasciculate).

According to the IUCN Red List Assessment 2017 for mammals conducted by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN), the first two species (Malayan and Brush-tailed) are Near Threatened (NT) while the Long-tailed is Vulnerable (VU).

This status is consistent with the amount of legal protection received in Malaysia.

The Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 lists the first two species as Protected, which means hunting is allowed with a permit from PERHILITAN while the Long-tailed is Totally Protected and hunting is banned altogether. The former two are also on Sixth Schedule of the Act which permits Aborigine communities to hunt and consume without a permit.

Aside from Aborigine communities, there is a demand for porcupine among other communities in Malaysia. As the stamp alluded to, the Malay community has been using porcupine meat as a substitute for beef in rendang. The Chinese community are more interested in porcupine bezoar (mass of fibres trapped in its digestive tract) for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Practitioners have claimed that bezoars can treat serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes and dengue.

Licences for commercial captive breeding have been issued to satisfy this demand. While studies on the effectiveness of farming to reduce pressure on wild populations in Malaysia have yet to be conducted, a study on the Vietnamese porcupine trade showed that despite farming, more than half of the farmers continue to rely on wild populations for restocking and sale.

This is unsustainable for wild populations of porcupines.

Benign graphics or sinister promotion?

Personally, I feel that the apology from Pos Malaysia was fair.

That was needed to quell the anger though I am sure these stamps were conceived with no intention of promoting nor condoning the consumption of porcupine rendang. Simply, a decision was made to showcase uncommon delicacies in Malaysia and it so happens that porcupine rendang is a popular dish consumed by local communities.

Also, what bothers me here is that a link between philately and consumption is not well established.

I used to collect stamps when I was younger. They were my window to the world, exposing me to new experiences, cultures and themes. Despite that, I did not find myself actively exploring and seeking out these experiences as I grew older.

On the same note, I doubt there will be an explosion of Malaysians actively seeking out porcupine rendang after licking the stamp with this graphic?

That being said, I’m not sure I would have felt the same if exotic dishes of Critically Endangered species were featured in the next series. Things like Tiger Bone Wine, Rhino Horn Powder or Pangolin Foetus Soup.

Every storm is an opportunity

For conservationists, we have to acknowledge that porcupines have been consumed by communities throughout Malaysia. However, this does not mean that communities should continue to consume porcupines if further scientific assessments show that their numbers are plummeting.

Take turtle eggs, for example. Despite them being a delicacy for many coastal communities, decline in worldwide turtle populations mean that turtle egg consumption has to stop. And that is happening on the east coast of Malaysia with education and conservation efforts.

This episode is indeed an opportunity for Pos Malaysia and the conservation community to learn from each other.

While I do agree with Dr Amar Singh’s fourth point that there are many other unique things about Malaysia that can be promoted via stamps, I opine that preventing the release and banning this series for featuring porcupine rendang might be a step too far.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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