Illegal wildlife trade is on the rise in Singapore, according to statistics from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA). There were 97 cases reported last year, up from 68 cases the year before, and an almost three-fold increase from the 34 cases in 2000.
Star tortoises, turtle eggs, hard corals, snakes and iguanas are some of the most common illegal wildlife and wildlife products seized during AVA raids. In October last year, for example, 40,000 pieces of air-dried python and monitor lizard skins worth $800,000 were seized from an Indonesian tugboat carrying crates of plywood products here.
Wildlife trade is very lucrative, said Miss Lye Fong Keng, head of AVA's Wildlife Regulatory Branch. "Organised crimes may generate profits comparable to smuggling of arms, drugs or people. Globally, the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of US dollars annually."
The number of high-profile cases has led conservation groups to label Singapore a hub for illegal wildlife activities. Responded Miss Lye: "Singapore is strategically located in a region that is rich in biodiversity. AVA and other enforcement agencies such as the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority are working closely to step up checks on wildlife consignments that pass through Singapore."
The AVA also attributes the steady rise in the number of reported cases over the last few years to greater public awareness of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which Singapore is a signatory of. Enforcement officers stationed at various checkpoints have also been educated on Cites, and the modes of wildlife smuggling operations.
The exploitation of Singapore's geography for illegal wildlife activities worries the local non-profit Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres). The problem could be the lenient penalties for smugglers or owners of illegal wildlife and wildlife products, said its deputy executive director, Miss Tamara Emir. An offender currently faces a fine of up to $5,000 (or $10,000 for repeat offenders) and/or one year's jail term under the Endangered Species Act.
"There is a definite need to alter the current legislation. The penalty ought to be in relation to the number of animals involved, contrary to the current ruling of number of species. The penalty seems to be merely a slap on the wrist," she said. According to the AVA, there were four repeat offenders between the years 2000 and 2004.
Noting that greater affluence and the Internet have made Singaporeans more able and willing to purchase live exotic Ñ and often illegal Ñ wildlife as pets, Acres says that individuals have an important role to play in stopping illegal wildlife trade.
Last year, the AVA investigated 21 cases of people possessing live illegal wildlife. The largest seizure occurred on Dec 21, when 26 animals were confiscated [see AVA press release, 22 Dec 2004].
The AVA said there is a common misconception that keeping exotic wildlife as pets is "cool". It warns that these illegal animals can spread diseases to humans and domestic animals and keeping them in homes could compromise the animals' welfare.
Said Miss Lye: "It is not 'cool' to keep and show off exotic wildlife as pets. Keeping illegal exotic pets is an irresponsible act."