The animal trafficking trade is worth US$10 billion (S$14 billion) to US$20 billion a year, just behind illegal arms and drugs but marked by the same kind of global gang networks, official corruption and cross-border money transfers. And South-east Asia is a major player because of its rich biodiversity.
THE flapping of wings and unusually high floor mats gave the game away, but inquisitive Customs officers were still taken aback when they searched the Singapore-registered car at Woodlands Checkpoint in December last year and found 60 jambuls and magpies making an almighty racket.
Same story last August when officers unearthed 50 oriental white-eye song birds – or mata puteh in Malay – hidden beneath trays of otak otak by an Indonesian man arriving at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal.
These birds are so popular as pets, they can fetch up to $150 each. The discovery of these two amateurish, low-level traffickers threw a tiny beam of light on what has become a vast criminal enterprise linking the jungles of South-east Asia and Africa to the private zoos of billionaires, clinics peddling traditional medicine and restaurants with wildlife on the
The trade rarely makes headlines yet it is worth around US$10 billion (S$14 billion) to US$20 billion a year, just behind illegal arms and drugs and marked by the same kind of global gang networks, official corruption and cross-border money transfers.
Globalisation is partly to blame. Increasing affluence and ease of communication and travel have helped make the illicit trade in rare creatures more rampant than ever, say experts.
Those luckless smugglers caught at Singapore checkpoints also point to another feature of the trade – the importance of South-east Asia.
The region, particularly China, is one of the traffickers’ global hot spots thanks to its rich biodiversity, a penchant for wildlife in food and traditional medicine, and a desire among increasingly wealthy people for exotic pets.
Mr Chris Shepherd, senior programme officer at Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network linked to the World Wide Fund for Nature, says: “It’s getting worse. I have never seen it this bad and I have been doing this job for 18 years.
“As species get rarer, the price goes up and they are more sought after.”
The Canadian based at Traffic’s head office near Kuala Lumpur adds: “There is a growing demand in South-east Asia for pet reptiles and birds. This didn’t use to be an issue but it’s becoming more and more fashionable, as is eating wild meat such as owls and snakes.”
Traffickers are in a constant battle of wits with the authorities across the world who have passed a welter of laws protecting wildlife.
But despite the good intentions, the sheer size of the black market and the demand it is meeting are hard to counter.
The traffickers’ wish list is long and varied, and driven in large part by the rarity value.
Bears, pangolins, long-tail macaques and turtles are among the top traded animals in the region, but a simple list does not hint at the cruelty the trade can involve.
Malayan Sun bears and Asian Black bears are wanted for their bile.
A needle is stuck into a bear’s gall bladder and bile siphoned off to be used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat ailments from fevers to heart disease – even though many TCM doctors say a plant can be used instead.
These bears often die from their injuries or develop enormous tumours that eventually kill them.
Luckier bears make it to rescue centres across the region, including three-legged ones that have been caught in snares or had their feet hacked off to make bear-paw soup.
Pangolins are in such high demand as a delicacy and for their scales, which are used to treat liver ailments in TCM, that they are trafficked from Africa as South-east Asia’s population is depleted.
Pangolins are now being shipped from Madagascar, Sumatra, Borneo and Palawan to mainland Asia and up to China.
A variety of tortoises and freshwater turtles are smuggled around the region for pets or food while the sea turtle eggs are eaten as aphrodisiacs.
Long-tailed macaques, unlike other targeted animals, do not come under the protection of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and so have no added protection.
They are the No. 1 primate used in medical research and many are trafficked with false papers to the United States and China while others are eaten locally.
Cites is at the forefront of efforts to curb the illegal trade in animals. Singapore, like other Asean countries, is party to Cites, which acts to control trade in 25,000 plant and 5,000 animal species through a licensing system.
It has devised a scale of at-risk animals.
Appendix I species are those threatened with extinction and trading is allowed only in exceptional circumstances.
Trade of Appendix II animals must be controlled in order to maintain their survival, while Appendix III refers to species protected in one country which has asked Cites to help control their trade. Trading of these species must be done with permits.
Each country appoints its own authority to enforce Cites, so it is only as effective as the country’s will and power to act.
Although many South-east Asian nations have strong laws on the books, enforcement can be rare or weak.
Cites also has a loophole. With the right paperwork, the rarest of animals can be traded with impunity as long as they were bred in captivity.
This has led to wide-scale “laundering” of animals, according to Mr Shepherd. “What’s happening is wild caught animals are exported as captive-bred with forged paperwork. In many cases, getting something from the wild is much cheaper than following all the regulations and the risk of getting caught is low,” he says.
“For example, spiny turtles captive bred in Indonesia don’t reach maturity until they are 10. Then they lay two eggs and the international market value is not high, only US$25 to US$30.
“Who’s going to look at that and think it’s a good idea as a business prospect? But to catch from the wild costs just a few dollars; that’s where the profit comes in.”
A more local approach to tackling the issue comes in the form of the Asean-Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) launched in December 2005 and headquartered in Bangkok.
It involves police, Customs and environment agencies from the 10 Asean countries trying to stop cross-border trade.
Senior officer Manop Lauprasert says the network hopes all the Asean nations will develop a task force such as those seen in Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.
The network also hopes for bilateral border agreements between China and Vietnam to stop trafficking.
“We work with China, which is doing some good things, and, although they are not in Asean, we would like to include them in future meetings,” he says, adding that Singapore’s role could be to help fund Asean-WEN which is currently supported by the US Agency for International Development.
Between January and March this year, it reported 19 law enforcement actions involving more than 5,659 live and 61,500 dead animals, animal parts and derivatives.
It has recovered 2.7 tonnes of wildlife with a minimum estimated value of US$4.5 million on the black market. This work has resulted in 17 related arrests across five countries.
Last year, there were 129 law enforcement actions by South-east Asian authorities, resulting in 156 arrests and 45 convictions across seven countries.
More than 18,540 animals were recovered alive. In total, over 267 tonnes of wildlife and derivative products were confiscated, with a minimum estimated black market value of US$40 million.
It has also run awareness projects in Laos and Bangkok and now in Vietnam, where an English-language billboard has been placed on the road to Hanoi’s international airport to remind people that wildlife trafficking is illegal.
Singapore is a key player in the enforcement process. It is known to have strict laws, but that can put it at a disadvantage in the fight against animal trafficking.
A stamp from Singapore’s checkpoints authority is seen as a validation of whatever is transported, so the shipment is less likely to hit trouble further along the journey. Fake papers about captive breeding, imports that exceed the exporting countries’ quotas for particular species and undetected illegal wildlife can all slip through in this way.
Singapore is also a growing market for smugglers.
Data from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), which oversees 25 checkpoints, shows that incidents have tripled.
“In 2009, smuggling of items controlled by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority saw a three-fold increase compared to 2008, registering the highest jump in these detections. From 1,800 cases in 2008, the number ballooned to 5,900 last year,” says an ICA spokesman, who adds that smugglers are getting more innovative.
“Our officers face the challenge to look out for the slightest signs of tampering on vehicles, and suspicious behaviour of travellers.”
While smugglers are caught, a stroll along Serangoon North Pet Walk shows that hundreds of birds, rare and endangered, from all over the world are on sale.
“It is likely that some of these birds were imported as captive-bred, but were in fact taken from the wild in the exporting countries,” says Mr Shepherd.
They must be bred in captivity and have the correct paperwork to be sold in this way, but Mr Shepherd doubts all the birds meet the criteria.
“Some of the birds in the shop exhibit behaviour of wild-caught birds in captivity such as pulling out feathers and cowering at the back of the cage,” he says.
When contacted, the shop declines to comment. Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) data shows that 1,763 birds were smuggled into Singapore last year, making them the main illegally traded category used as pets.
This is a huge increase from the 2008 figure of 81 but well below the 6,962
found in 2005.
The AVA says the 2009 spike was due to the number of birds found in each incident.
Fish like humphead wrasse and Asian arowana are also popular – 50 were detected last year, followed by reptiles such as lizards and turtles and mammals like sugar gliders.
So far this year there have been 65 wildlife enforcement cases, with one prosecution resulting in a $6,000 fine. Also, 34 individuals have had fines compounded between $100 and $2,500, and 23 warning letters were issued. All animals rescued by the AVA are handed to the Singapore Zoo, Jurong BirdPark or Underwater World.
AVA officers conduct regular workshops for ICA and Police Coast Guard officers on species identification and other factors to look for.
Despite the rise in smuggling, only 19 people were convicted of smuggling live wildlife between 2005 and last year. Penalties ranged from fines of up to $159,000 and up to eight weeks in jail.
In June, a vendor at the Singapore Food Expo was caught selling bear gall bladders at $700 each following a tip-off to Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres). He was fined $2,500 for possession of an illegally imported “bear” gall bladder which was found to be fake in laboratory tests.
In March, the AVA seized 320 items being sold as tiger parts from 30 antique and jewellery shops, also following work by Acres.
Six of the shops were found to be selling real tiger parts. Twenty-six of the shops paid composition fines of between $500 and $3,000, while the remaining four were served with warning letters.
An AVA spokesman says there is no difference in punishment if the items are fake if they are being sold as genuine.
The Acres Wildlife Rescue Centre, a first in Singapore, began operating last August. It can take in reptiles and amphibians rescued from the illegal wildlife trade as well as injured native reptiles and amphibians.
It has rescued 577 wild animals – 36 from illegal trading, including sugar gliders, pygmy hedgehogs, star tortoises, pig-nosed turtles, green iguanas, soft-shell turtles and a common snapping turtle. It has also saved 541 injured native species.
Acres executive director Louis Ng says although there is a constant illegal wildlife trade in Singapore, it is not an endemic problem.
“The Government has improved wildlife protection legislation significantly. Penalties for smuggling and possession of endangered species were increased from $5,000 per species to $50,000 – sending out a strong deterrent message that wildlife crime will not be tolerated in Singapore.”
He adds that the recent tiger trade busts were successful thanks to Acres’ liaison with the AVA.
Yet despite Singapore’s strict penalties, the bear gall incident at the food expo shows the appetite for contraband is high.
Instances like the use of a tiger pelt on the front cover of 8 Days magazine in February, the market in tiger parts and the rush to buy bear gall bladder in June show there is demand for endangered animals locally which in turn fuels this illegal trade.
“As you go up the scale, prices and business become more lucrative. In places like the Middle East and China, people are prepared to pay a lot of money for an orang utan or turtle,” says Dr Karmele Llano Sanchez, a vet at the International Animal Rescue Centre’s Jakarta office.
“It is a never-ending cycle. If you are not punished for doing something illegal, you just do it again – much like the drugs or weapons trade.”
Where the markets are
Tiger parts sold for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) fetch the highest sums; a tiger can fetch up to a million baht (S$42,000).
Reptiles like turtles and tortoises, chameleons and snakes as well as pangolins and marine species such as coral, fish and seahorses are trafficked in volume.
Ivory from Africa is also carved by Thai craftsmen and exported to China and Japan. This is illegal. Ivory from Thai elephants can only be sold in Thailand and it cannot be taken out of the country, although most tourists do not know this.
Thailand is a member of Asean-WEN, but law enforcement often lacks manpower and resources.
Tourists are often reminded that it is illegal to buy endangered species, but Bangkok’s Chatuchak market has many endangered animals for sale.
The most targeted animals are long-tail macaques, pangolins, bears and turtles, which are all used for medical research, food and TCM.
There is a grey area as macaques and crocodiles can be farmed but correct papers are needed to move them. Often they are caught in the wild and shipped with false papers. Trafficked animals usually head to Vietnam and on to China.
Although it used to be commonplace to see wildlife for sale at markets or restaurants, enforcement efforts have made this rarer. Laws were strengthened in 2002 with more species added to the outlawed list.
Pangolins, turtles, snakes and long-tailed macaques are traded illegally but the most valuable trafficked animals are tigers, rhinos and bears, all used mainly for medicine.
A countrywide ban on new bears in farms was imposed in 2005 but if a farmer already owned bears, he could keep them for the animals’ lifespan but extraction or selling bile is not allowed. Bears must also be microchipped.
Bears live up to 30 years in the wild but only five to seven years on farms due to much poorer nutrition and conditions. If an owner is caught with unchipped bears, he is fined 30 million Vietnamese dong (S$2,100) for each animal but can keep them. There are no documented prosecutions for selling bear bile.
A Vietnamese group, Education for Nature Vietnam, set up a hotline in 2005. It fielded fewer than 10 calls a month in the early days but now handles 20 to 30 calls a day, with more than 90 per cent of calls from the Vietnamese.
The country is considered a major illegal animal trade hub with species flowing from Indonesia and Africa towards China. However, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks or Perhilitan and NGOs alike believe that an update to the 1972 Wildlife Act, passed on Monday, as well as earlier changes made to the Cites Act make the law much stronger and should act as a deterrent to would-be traffickers.
Malaysia still has large blocks of forest so it is ideally suited for sustaining tigers in the wild. Five years ago there were 5,000 tigers but now there are only 3,000.
It has one of the world’s largest treasure troves of biodiversity. The World Conservation Union lists as many as 147 mammals, 114 birds and 91 fish among the world’s most endangered species.
The abundance of wildlife has also proved a curse, with the vast archipelago an epicentre of illegal wildlife trade. Jakarta is home to three of the world’s largest bird markets, where many endangered and protected species of birds, reptiles and fish are traded freely.
The non-profit organisation Profauna says around 115,000 parrots, including the highly endangered palm cockatoo, are caught every year in the wilds of Papua and Maluku and sold in such markets.
There are laws forbidding illegal trading in Indonesia, yet there is a lack of proper enforcement. For example, a slow loris, an animal protected under Indonesian law, can be caught in the wild for about 25,000 rupiah (S$4) and sold in a market for between 250,000 rupiah and a million rupiah.
Wealthy Indonesians believe owning a rare bird species is a symbol of good luck and social prestige.
PENALTIES IN SINGAPORE
- Smuggling protected wildlife: Fine of up to $500,000 and/or jail of up to two years.
- Importing or exporting wildlife without a licence: Fine of up to $10,000 and/or jail of up to one year.