Singapore’s ivory trade ban tackles elephant in room but work ahead a mammoth task

In Endangered Species, Opinion
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Singapore’s ivory ban is a win for conservation but we must double down on wider conservation efforts, says WWF-Singapore’s Kim Stengert.

This week marked the end of a long wait for Singapore to stop the sale of ivory and ivory products and a victory for those working to put this in place. 

Over the last six months, Singapore authorities seized an unprecedented amount of 38 tonnes of pangolin scales and almost 10 tonnes of elephant ivory worth more than S$170 million – with some close to the largest seizures the world has seen.

Led by the National Parks Board (NParks), these acts of enforcement were a true testament of the country’s zero-tolerance to illegal wildlife trade.

Just two days after the most recent seizure of 15 baskets containing 815 birds over the National Day weekend, Singapore announced the latest highlight of our fight against illegal wildlife trade: An ivory ban.

THE WORK IS FAR FROM COMPLETE

It is generally estimated that customs intercepts 10 per cent of all contraband including drugs, weapons, and presumably ivory.

Although the massive seizures highlighted what effective law enforcement looks like in Singapore, it also revealed the sheer size of the problem. So the work is far from complete.

This week will be the start of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva, where 183 governments will meet to make critical decisions on wildlife protection.

A close-up of pangolin scales. CITES, which is happening from 17 to 28 August in Geneva, will discuss the role of key countries such as Vietnam in the illegal wildlife trade.
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

With the ban announcement and the enforcement successes, this is a timely opportunity for Singapore to send a renewed urgent signal to global governments to interrupt trade routes and strengthen enforcement measures. What’s currently at stake: About 1,045 threatened species and subspecies, including pangolins and marine turtles.

The hope is that at CITES, Singapore’s leadership will spur more Southeast Asian governments into action, to close their domestic markets and step up enforcement efforts.

While the most iconic animal in our conservation fight has often been the elephant, given the high-profile poaching crisis this gentle creature has faced in recent years, the illegal wildlife trade is more than just in ivory.

Wildlife populations continue to dwindle as the overexploitation of many other key wildlife including pangolins, sharks, saiga antelopes and songbirds remain widespread today.

These latest large-scale seizures had one thing in common: Africa was the leading source country, Singapore the transit point and Vietnam the destination. Case in point: Our little red dot has unwillingly facilitated the trade of the species and its products as the largest transshipment hub in the world.

Every 26 minutes, one African elephant is poached for the ivory trade.
© Martin Harvey / WWF

So while we rejoice in Singapore’s ban on ivory domestic trade, we now also need to look at protecting the other 1,044 species and subspecies threatened with extinction and urgently advance measures to shut down any illegal trade via Singapore.

Here are three we need to do to further disrupt wildlife crime:

1. MAKE SURE THE IVORY BAN DOESN’T SHIFT SUPPLY AND DEMAND SOMEWHERE ELSE 

An immediate suspension of the issuance of import and export licences for pre-convention ivory can ensure that the ban will not lead to stockpiling of new ivory or increased supply or demand in other countries.

I also recommend making it compulsory for retailers to declare their inventory immediately.

2. INCREASE PENALTIES TO DETER ALL WILDLIFE CRIME

The punishment must be a real deterrent that outweighs the benefit of the crime. WWF is proposing a minimum of four-year to maximum 10-year sentences aligned to the definition of a “serious crime” under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

To find the kingpins, illegal wildlife trade must be linked to money laundering and cybercrime investigations. We recommend the seizure of assets and an increase in the maximum fine per shipment from S$500,000 to S$5 million to tackle the huge monetary incentive for retailers to continue trading ivory on the black market. For example, the current maximum penalty of S$500,000 is pocket change compared to the S$66 million the recent large-scale seizure was valued at. 

3. DEVELOP STRONGER COOPERATION WITH OTHER GOVERNMENTS

We have seen great work in the Singapore enforcement departments across the police, border controls, customs units and NParks over the last six months. But what’s next for traffickers?

The trade operates outside the confines of the law, taking advantage of loopholes to move around the world. Likely, they will start re-routing to other countries with weaker enforcement.

Many Southeast Asia countries, including Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have already banned all domestic sale and display of ivory products. So, to curb the illegal trade to an extent that wild populations will bounce back will also require more strategic inter-agency and inter-governmental cooperation.

[ Also read: How did we fail to save the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia? ]

Wildlife populations will only recover if all of us take action. While governments need to set stronger laws, regulations, enforcement and work together, businesses need to stop the shipments and sales of wildlife products.

We, too, as individuals can play our part. Just like we rejected ivory, we have to be continuously vocal that any products contributing to the extinction of species are a taboo and socially unacceptable.  

We should be excited about this new chapter that begins, it has opened a real opportunity to stop illegal wildlife trade. Let’s continue the momentum and ensure that no further species will fall victim to this trade on our watch.

Help us stop illegal wildlife trade here.

This commentary first appeared on channelnewsasia.com, 17 August 2019.

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1 Comment

  1. Such a proud and bold step towards saving Wildlife, KUDOS Singapore. It’s just the beginning though, we need to be more vigilant and take further such steps and even urge governments of other countries to take such necessary steps to stop illegal wildlife trade and a step towards wildlife protection.

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