Could animals seized from the illegal wildlife trade strain S’pore’s capacity to keep them?

In 2023, at least 30 cases of pet animal and wildlife smuggling were detected by the authorities in Singapore, with the largest seizure involving 337 birds squeezed into plastic boxes.

Shabana Begum

Shabana Begum

The Straits Times

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Dr Petrina Teo, a vet at the National Parks Board Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation, holding a bearded dragon. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

July 3, 2024

SINGAPORE – As Singapore is a key global transshipment hub for illegal wildlife trafficking, the local authorities seize numerous smuggled animals every year.

In 2023, at least 30 cases of pet animal and wildlife smuggling were detected by the authorities in Singapore, with the largest seizure involving 337 birds squeezed into plastic boxes.

Since 2021, the National Parks Board (NParks) has seized 180 wildlife in cases that involved suspects who had peddled these animals for sale on online platforms such as Telegram.

Each year between 2019 and 2023, there were one to eight instances of wildlife smuggling detected at land checkpoints, according to NParks.

A small portion of the confiscated animals are repatriated to their native habitats in other countries.

For the 337 birds, those that survived and are native to Singapore were released here in 2024. They include the scaly-breasted munias, white-rumped shamas and Swinhoe’s white-eyes.

Surviving red-whiskered bulbuls were rehomed as they are approved as pets here.

More than 130 of the birds died, likely from the smuggling ordeal.

The most ideal outcome is repatriation, said Ms Xie Renhui, director for wildlife trade at NParks, as these animals get a second shot at life in their natural habitat after being seized from the underground trade.

Ms Elizabeth John, communications manager at Traffic – a global anti-wildlife-trafficking non-governmental organisation – said: “As enforcement against illegal wildlife trade grows, so too do confiscations. This in turn presents growing problems for countries making those confiscations in terms of how to handle the live animals involved.”

Wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) is currently raising funds to explore options to repatriate one of its exotic tortoise species.

In 2018, the organisation sent 51 of the Indian star tortoises rescued from roadsides, households and briefcases of smugglers back to India, where they were eventually released into a protected reserve in Karnataka state.

Unfortunately, repatriation is “not that common”, Ms Xie said.

There are many considerations involved for repatriation, such as the commitment between the receiving country and Singapore, costs, documentation needed, and the conservation value of the species in question.

For example, bearded dragons and sugar gliders are native to Australia, but with the country’s strict biosecurity laws, it is unlikely to accept any animal from the trade, even if the species were endangered, said Dr Petrina Teo, a vet at the NParks Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation.

These exotic animals may also have been bred in captivity elsewhere.

In some cases, animals that return to the wild may end up being poached again. There is also the risk of unknown diseases that the animal could bring to the wild.

“The truth here is, in reality, a lot of countries will say no to repatriation. You don’t know where this animal has gone through in terms of its transit, or its full journey until reaching Singapore. So the level of exposure to unknown pathogens is really unknown,” said Dr Teo.

Ms Xie added that if the source country has a population of a certain species that is doing well, there is no incentive for the country to bring in another one that might risk disrupting its entire ecosystem.

In recent repatriation missions here, two things stood out. First, the species – which include the Asian leopard cat, Malaysian giant turtle and black marsh terrapins – are vulnerable and threatened, making conservation efforts crucial.

Second, strong partnerships between Singapore and the receiving countries, such as Malaysia’s Wildlife and National Parks Department and India’s conservation non-profit Wildlife SOS, enabled the return of seized animals.

Could confiscated animals not repatriated, released into the wild here or rehomed strain Singapore’s capacity to keep them here?

NParks’ Ms Xie is not ruling out space constraints in Singapore to keep confiscated wildlife, as the illegal wildlife trade remains rife.

“There’s definitely a limitation. I don’t think there’s a point where we say: ‘Enough, we’ve built a large enough building to keep everything.’ Constraint is definitely always a challenge,” she said.

In 2022, NParks opened the 1,250 sq m Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation in Lim Chu Kang to care for injured native wildlife and animals seized from the illegal trade. The centre has the capacity to take in up to 200 animals. There are more non-native species housed there, as native ones can often be released or rehomed after rehabilitation.

The centre has various rooms to house different groups of animals, such as aquatics, mammals and reptiles.

When The Straits Times visited the centre on June 24, many seized wildlife were there, including arowanas, axolotls, several tarantulas, snapping turtles, milk snakes, green iguanas, sugar gliders and one hedgehog.

Since the centre’s opening, fewer cases have gone to Mandai Wildlife Group’s Wildlife Healthcare and Research Centre (WHRC), which was established in 2006, unless an animal requires specialised care.

For example, a non-native silvery langur was spotted in Singapore in September 2023 and brought to the WHRC in January 2024.

“Due to extensive injuries and the requirements for specific diet and husbandry, it was in our care for about two weeks until its condition had stabilised. It is currently being cared for by NParks,” said Dr Charlene Yeong, a vet with Mandai Wildlife Group and Mandai Nature.

Both organisations also conduct training and provide expertise in veterinary care and husbandry for NParks staff and other partners.

For Acres, its 0.5ha Wildlife Rescue Centre is a permanent home to 125 exotic animals, including 31 pig-nosed turtles, and various snakes and tortoises that the society had rescued itself or had been alerted to. The animals are likely to have been smuggled into Singapore at one point, said the society’s co-chief executive Kalai Vanan Balakrishnan.

Acres is planning to significantly expand its facility in Sungei Tengah, by 0.75ha.

NParks follows international guidelines for the disposal of confiscated live animals drawn up by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the global wildlife trade regulator.

Apart from repatriation, other options include permanent captivity in zoos and rescue centres, and euthanasia.

Mandai Wildlife Group has taken in some seized animals at its zoo and wildlife parks. They include the blue tree monitor and emerald tree monitor lizards, sugar gliders and fishes like the sturgeon, said Dr Yeong.

Before Mandai Wildlife Group takes in an animal, there are several considerations such as the condition or behaviour of the creature and whether the animal is suitable to fulfil conservation, education or research roles at the parks, she added.

The Cites guidelines state that sending confiscated animals to zoos is getting less viable with large numbers of animals and, increasingly, common species. There are only so many green iguanas, bearded dragons and sugar gliders that zoos can take in.

According to Cites, euthanasia can be the simplest and most humane option available for confiscated animals. At the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation, animals are put down largely on welfare grounds.

This is especially so for animals that may not be well adapted to living in captivity for prolonged periods or the rest of their lives, and may develop signs of stress and diseases, said Dr Teo.

She said many primates, such as marmoset monkeys, need to be housed socially, but they may be trafficked individually. “They may already come in with behavioural issues – depending on how they were reared in captivity or poached too young from their parents – that we cannot correct. Therefore, euthanasia is a better option.”

NParks did not say how many seized animals were euthanised.

Dr Teo stressed that the centre does not put animals down due to housing constraints.

“We’re fortunate we’ve never had to,” she said.

Like many in the animal welfare scene, Dr Teo said tackling the root cause of wildlife trafficking and curbing demand is the main solution.

“We don’t even want to see (seized animals) come in,” she said.

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