Endangered animals like tigers are far from the eyes – and often far from the thoughts – of city-dwellers, yet our actions have a direct impact on their survival. Find out what’s going on and what we can do to stop a shocking industry that’s pushing thousands of species to the brink.
The illegal wildlife trade keeps some illustrious company, ranking alongside drugs, guns and human trafficking in the top few illegal global industries. Some agencies say the trade is worth around US$10 billion a year. In Southeast Asia, a biodiversity hotspot, the trade is partly responsible (along with habitat loss) for the near-extinction of 200 species and the uncertain future of many more.
Animals are sold either alive as exotic pets, or dead as food; animal parts and skins are used in handbags and other luxury items, and in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products.
In Southeast Asia, the pangolin (also known as the scaly anteater, and found in tropical areas of Asia and Africa) is currently the most-traded mammal and in hot demand as an exotic meat and for its use in TCM remedies. Many other animal species are threatened, too – millions of animals are harvested illegally, fracturing ecosystems and destroying biodiversity to meet consumer demand across the globe.
Global figures from Prince William to Hillary Clinton have called for action, adding to the voices of wildlife and environment organisations in drawing attention to the scale of this trade. Malaysia-based Chris Shepherd is Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, and has worked in the wildlife trade monitoring field for 20 years.
Chris says the scale of the trade and its profits is enormous, and while it’s true that some wildlife can be legally bred and sold, it’s difficult to be able to prove this. “With the volumes that are being imported and exported around the world, traceability is the big issue. Where are these animals coming from?”
Rhinoceroses and tigers rightly get a large proportion of publicity, says Chris, but adds that birds and reptiles can be just as vulnerable because of their popularity as pets – not only in Asia, but in Europe and North America. In March of this year, two men were caught in Jakarta attempting to smuggle reptiles and amphibians in their suitcases on a flight bound for Kuala Lumpur.
“Among the haul were green tree pythons from Eastern Indonesia. These beautiful, non-venomous snakes are protected by law; it’s illegal to take them from the wild and sell them. My guess is that they were bound for Europe, where they would become someone’s pet in an aquarium,” he says.
What’s the situation in Singapore?
Singapore follows stringent regulations, employing surveillance and law enforcement measures to control the trade in illegal wildlife. As a result, it doesn’t have bird or animal markets on the scale of Bangkok or Jakarta, where illegal and endangered animals are traded openly.
Still, from time to time, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) makes busts, such as the seizing at Changi Airport of black rhino horns in 2014, and of ivory tusks and pangolin scales with a market value of $1.3 million in 2015. And TCM stores and pet shops remain problematic. A campaign by the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) saw TCM businesses that were clear of any involvement in illegal trade labelled as such with prominent stickers.
The hotspot for animal trading today, however, is the internet. A study of online advertising sites by ACRES last year found 156 ads for illegal pets, including sugar gliders, an Asian leopard cat, an African hedgehog and a tarantula. A subsequent investigation revealed that the animals were either homebred locally or smuggled into Singapore by road or air. A joint sting with the AVA led to animals being seized.
Director of Conservation and Research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) Sonja Luz says consumers considering buying an exotic pet from a shop should be wary. “It’s obvious when an animal is illegal – a pangolin, for example; but with birds it can be difficult. The shop may have papers, yet the bird could be threatened because of unsustainable harvesting in the wild,” she says.
“The impetus is on the buyer to do their research. Ask questions about how sustainably the birds are bred in captivity, and whether they could have been taken from the wild,” she says. If there’s any doubt, don’t buy.
What happens to confiscated animals?
The Singapore Zoo is a wildlife rescue centre, receiving and caring for animals confiscated by the AVA. Sonja says that reptiles – especially tortoises and turtles – make up about 80 percent of the live confiscations from illegal trade in Singapore. “Recently, we took in hundreds of black spotted pond turtles, a critically endangered species found in Nepal, Pakistan and India and traded as pets and for meat. People like them because they’re pretty and cute,” she says.
The Zoo also cares for 12 critically endangered birds that have become part of a breeding programme led by Dr Luis Carlos Neves (featured in Expat Living in June 2014). One aim of the programme is to return captive bred birds to reliable partners in their home regions, where they can boost or even reinstate native populations.
TRAFFIC field research points to Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar as some of the countries most heavily involved in the illegal wildlife trade. All Southeast Asian countries are among the 180 nations that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). This is an international register of endangered wildlife, and it’s getting longer rather than shorter. Chris would like to see CITES use its power to penalise countries that are not abiding by the rules or following the steps available to help them do so. He suggests this could include a trade ban, which he thinks would be effective. “CITES is an amazing convention, but it needs to get tougher,” he says.
Surveillance, intelligence gathering, law enforcement and strong penalties all play a role in curbing the supply side of the trade. The other side of the equation is stopping demand. Chris is frank. “People should stop buying. Just stop. There is little need to buy wildlife,” he says.
TRAFFIC has a programme in Vietnam aimed at changing attitudes towards the consumption of rhino horn. Chris says people use the horn as a status symbol, or sometimes to treat their hangovers. “These people know that the rhino is almost extinct in the wild. So we’re working on education campaigns to change their way of thinking, to say that it’s not socially acceptable to buy and consume rhino horn,” he says.
In Singapore, a new WRS campaign, “You Buy They Die”, recently used a confrontational image of a pangolin and a cockatoo in the deplorable conditions in which they are smuggled; many such animals do not survive these cruel journeys. “We want to empower people to say no, to understand why they should care and what they can do,” says Sonja. “Singapore is a tourism hub, and we need to equip visitors to Southeast Asia with the information to make informed choices when buying souvenirs, so they can say no to ivory at a street market and think twice before buying kopi luwak (civet cat coffee).”
You may not have a pet but have you ever purchased a reptile-skin product such as shoes or a handbag? Could you prove its origin and whether or not it came from a legal source? One of TRAFFIC’s biggest goals is establishing a globally transparent and traceable system for animals and animal skin.
“A substantial amount of wildlife comes through Singapore as skins that are used here in manufacture before being reexported to places like China or Europe. This industry involves millions of reptiles every year, and some of it is legal and some is not,” says Chris. He is quick to reiterate that the power lies with consumers; “They should say, ‘We don’t really need a reptile skin bag, and if you can’t show that it’s from a legal source we won’t buy it.”
“There’s not a lot of sense to the wildlife trade,” Chris continues. “It’s amazing how many people buy endangered animals as pets because they think of themselves as animal lovers. But those animals are as good as dead – they’re not part of the ecosystem any more.”
What you can do
- Report information on illegal wildlife activities to the AVA at 1800 476 1600 or 6805 2992
- Report suspicious activity on the free Wildlife Witness App
- Support the WRS campaign at wrs.com.sg/youbuytheydie
- Don’t buy products from wild-caught animals
- If you’re offered wildlife products, refuse them and encourage your friends to do the same
- Support the work of TRAFFIC at traffic.org
Looking for more things about Living In Singapore?
Get the latest events, stories and special offers
sent to your inbox.
By signing up, you'll receive our weekly newsletters and offers, which you can unsubscribe to anytime.