On Thursday (20 February), a report was released stating that illegal wildlife trade in South-East Asia (SEA) is at “jaw dropping” levels, and pushed for Singapore to increase its maximum jail term for wildlife crimes, given that the city-state is a major transit hub.
In the report by British-based Traffic, a non-governmental organisation that observes the global wildlife trade, it pointed out that laws in Singapore are “generally adequate” and sentencing rates are high, but highlighted that the maximum jail term of two years is insufficient as it is below the regional average of eight years.
Titled “South-east Asia at the heart of wildlife trade”, the report also stated that certain regulations in Singapore on the reporting of trade data are not clear.
“Not a day goes by without a wildlife seizure taking place in South-East Asia, and all too often in volumes that are jaw dropping,” said Kanita Krishnasamy, director of Traffic in SEA.
The report looked at thousands of successful seizures across 10 countries that are part of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in recent times, where both living and wildlife animals are traded as pets, or used as luxury goods and traditional medicine.
Some examples of items that are illegally trafficked across SEA are rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory.
However, the report disclosed that the numbers recorded are only a small fraction of the real figure of illegal wildlife trade in the region, given that the data only shows successful seizure. It added that regulations on wildlife trade have flaws, leading to lack of reporting.
Illegal wildlife trading in Singapore
The report noted that Singapore is still the main transit hub for imports of reptiles and birds from SEA. It explained that a big amount of ivory and pangolin scales have been seized here, showing that smugglers use the ports in the city-state to transport these items within SEA.
In April 2019, 12.7 tons of pangolin scales in 474 bags were found in a 40-foot container travelling from Nigeria to Vietnam. The container was declared to contain ‘Cassia Seeds’.
Instead of cassia seeds, the authorities found about S$51.6 million worth of scales from this endangered animal. According to the statement by the National Parks Board, the scales that were seized came from two species of pangolins and add up to about 21,000 animals.
Combined with the seizure only five days prior of 12.9 tons of pangolin scales worth S$52.3 million, that’s an estimated 38,000 the endangered mammals which were killed for their scales – in Singapore’s two seizures totaling to over S$100 million.
Just a few months later, in July, the authorities managed to impound 8,800 kg of ivory. It was estimated that these items came from nearly 300 African elephants.
As such, the Singapore government announced in August last year that a domestic ivory trade ban will come into effect next year. This is part of the government’s effort to take control and prevent the illegal trade of ivory.
However, the report also said that regulations for reporting trade data remains unclear in Singapore.
As an example, it pointed out that 86,000 records of bird species named in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) were unaccounted for after it entered Singapore from 2005 to 2014.
CITES is a global organisation based on an international treaty to ensure sustainable wildlife trade, which Singapore joined in 1986.
“(This calls) attention to a combination of discrepancies in trade data recording, misreporting by both importing and exporting parties as well as concerns regarding trade practices,” it said.
Call for stricter punishment
Although the report said that the regulations and laws pertaining to illegal wildlife trading in Singapore is adequate, but more things can be done to curb this issue.
Louis Ng, MP of Nee Soon GRC and founder of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), told TODAY that increasing the jail term for wildlife crimes in Singapore is important but not enough to make a big impact on the illegal wildlife trade.
“(Increasing) the jail term can be a good deterrence but it will only target low level criminals and won’t make a huge dent on the trade,” Mr Ng said.
He went on to say that authorities should track the money trail by looking through financial audits in order to identify the big players behind these criminal organisations.
Mr Ng also stressed that if illegal transactions are traced and frozen, it will make it a lot tougher for people to earn profit from wildlife trade, hence discouraging it.
Under the Endangered Species Act, one who is found guilty of trade violations can be given fine up to S$50,000 per specimen, while penalties for illegal possession, trade and advertisement can run up to S$10,000 per specimen.
Separately, Senior lecturer Joanna Coleman at the Department of Biological Sciences of the National University of Singapore (NUS) also told TODAY that Singapore can focus on successful events where using or eating wildlife products are deterred in order to find out what interventions are really required.
“We’ve had successes when it comes to wildlife trade. (For instance), demand for shark fin in China has plummeted in recent years due to active campaigning that has begun to alter our social norms,” said Dr Coleman.
She added, “I think we should start by analysing the aspects of these successes that worked and identifying how to apply them to our society.”
However, Professor Michael Gumert of Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences highlighted that it is not easy to change people’s cultural beliefs, especially on things like traditional medicine that uses illegal wildlife.
“Most people won’t give up on strong beliefs,” he said. He added that placebo effect strengthens their belief that the medicine actually works.
As such, he explained that education and changing mindsets should be focused on the younger generation.