Breaking the law might earn him big bucks, he thought. Instead, it cost Victor Tan Choon Kiat $56,000 in fines for importing endangered species.
In contrast, the value of the seized consignment is estimated to be about $4,500.
This is the biggest fine ever imposed for the illegal import of protected species, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).
Tan, 28, has been a licensed aquarium shop owner for two years. But the temptation to line his pockets got the better of him. He tried to smuggle 246 pieces of hard corals and 30 giant clams into Singapore.
They were individually wrapped in plastic bags lined with newspaper strips and packed into six white styrofoam cartons. In 42 other cartons were assorted marine fish from Indonesia, which were legal imports.
Thanks to one sharp-eyed immigration officer, Tan got caught on 8 Jun this year. On that day, senior immigration and checkpoint specialist Gary Gay was carrying out routine checks on air cargo at Changi Airfreight Centre.
He told The New Paper: 'When I asked the man to open up some of the cartons, he appeared nervous and took a considerably long time to open up the cartons for inspection.
'This aroused my suspicions and I inspected some cartons that were stacked deep inside the truck. True enough, my suspicions were confirmed when I found hard corals and giant clams hidden in one of the cartons.'
In total, 14 species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) were found. A permit from AVA is required to move Cites-listed species between countries.
Tan claimed that the undeclared boxes were part of a future consignment due to arrive via Malaysia. He said the Indonesian supplier shipped the corals with the fishes after he failed to contact the agent in Malaysia.
Tan produced a permit from Indonesia consigned to Malaysia but the coral species listed were totally different from those seized. AVA rejected Tan's explanation and proceeded to charge him.
On 13 Sep, he pleaded guilty to 14 charges of illegally importing hard corals and giant clams from Indonesia and was fined $4,000 per species, totalling $56,000.
The corals and clams were given to Underwater World Singapore for safe keeping.
AVA prosecuting officer Yap Teck Chuan urged the court to impose the maximum fine. He wrote in his submission: 'Singapore has been accused by non-governmental organisations, traders and the public for not doing enough to stop the illegal wildlife trade.' As this is bad for Singapore's international image, heavy penalties and deterrent sentences have to be meted out.
Ms Lye Fong Keng, head of AVA's wildlife regulatory branch, agreed. 'As a regular trader, they should be well aware of the procedures for importing Cites-listed species,' she said of Aquarium Iwarna. 'The company was also compounded previously for the illegal import of Cites-protected calcareous algae rocks.'
IN the past four years, AVA has seized large numbers of Cites corals, calcareous algae rocks (also known as live rocks) and giant clams. The Aquarium Iwarna case involved one of the largest seizures and heaviest fines, said Ms Lye Fong Keng of AVA.
From 2002 to 2004, AVA seized 1,259 pieces of hard corals and over 4.5 metric tonnes of live rocks. The fines imposed ranged from $50 to $10,000.
One man was jailed for three months in 2002 for importing 300kg of live rocks and 94 pieces of hard corals from Indonesia without permits.
So far this year, about 300 hard corals and 200 live rocks have been seized. As for giant clams, 212 pieces have been seized since 2002.
Anyone importing or exporting Cites-listed species without an AVA permit can be fined up to $5,000 per species and/or jailed up to a year.
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