Stiffer maximum fines and longer maximum jail terms for illegal wildlife traffickers

Ivory seized from illegal shipments being crushed in August 2020. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - A law that aims to stamp out wildlife trafficking in Singapore was strengthened on Monday (July 4), with stiffer penalties for those found guilty.

Under changes to the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act, the maximum jail term for individuals involved in the illegal wildlife trade has tripled from two years to six, while the new maximum fine has increased from $50,000 per species to $100,000 per specimen.

Companies found trafficking endangered species would also face higher fines and prison sentences, Senior Minister of State for National Development Tan Kiat How told Parliament on Monday.

This is because corporations generally have more resources and the means to move larger quantities of illegally traded species listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

Species on Appendix I of Cites - an international treaty that aims to protect endangered plants and animals - include animals on the brink of extinction, such as Asian elephants and pangolins.

International trade in these creatures is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Offenders found guilty of trafficking species listed on Cites Appendix II - which include species such as hippopotamuses - and Appendix III species, such as foxes, will also face higher fines of up to $50,000 for each specimen, up from a maximum of $50,000 for each species.

Trade is allowed for wildlife species listed on Appendix II, but this is strictly controlled to ensure their survival.

Wild animals and plants listed on Appendix III refer to species that are protected in at least one country.

The amended law also imposes a maximum jail term of four years for such offenders, up from two. Corporations that trade Appendix II and III species face fines of up to $100,000 per specimen and imprisonment of up to six years.

New safeguards will also be introduced to protect the identity of informers. This is to encourage more individuals to come forward and provide information regarding illegal wildlife trade, which will help facilitate investigations by the National Parks Board (NParks).

The amendments to the law would ensure that penalties issued are proportionate to the offence, and further deter illegal trade of wildlife both internationally and domestically, said NParks in a statement on Monday.

NParks' enforcement powers will also be strengthened so that it can tackle illegal wildlife trade more effectively.

For instance, if NParks seizes a shipment of non-Cites timber planks with illegally traded elephant ivory concealed beneath those planks, NParks could previously seize only the elephant ivory.

But with the new amendments, NParks can now also seize items used to conceal these species, in this case, the timber planks.

These changes will further deter illegal wildlife trade, as would-be smugglers could lose additional cargo that was used to commit the offence, said NParks.

Mr Tan said that the threat of illegal wildlife trade is constantly evolving, and that its profitability has led to smugglers constantly finding new loopholes for exploitation.

"So, beyond strengthening our research capabilities, partnerships and engagements, we must ensure that our regulations and enforcement tools remain up to date and effective," he said.

While demand for wild animals and their parts is not as rampant in Singapore as it is elsewhere in Asia, the Republic has long been called out by the international conservation community for not doing more to control the transit of such items through the country.

For example, wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic had in its 2020 report identified Singapore as a key transit hub for the rest of South-east Asia, a prominent market for illegal wildlife trade.

This is because the Republic's maximum jail term of two years for wildlife crime was one of the lowest among Asean member states, with the regional average at about eight years, the report said.

Elephant tusks, pangolin scales and rhinoceros horns on at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Visitor Centre gallery last year. PHOTO: ST FILE

However, in recent years, NParks has bolstered its fight against illegal wildlife trade with the new Centre for Wildlife Forensics launched last August.

It identifies and analyses specimens seized here, along with a K9 unit of dogs trained to sniff out commonly trafficked wildlife and wildlife products.

While Cites governs mainly the international trade in wild animals and their parts, the amended law will also align penalties for the illegal domestic trade in Cites-listed species with international requirements, said Mr Tan.

For instance, hybrid animals, which are a cross between Cites and non-Cites species, will, under the new law, be treated as full Cites species.

These include the Bengal cat, which is a cross between the wild Asian leopard cat - a Cites-listed species - and a domestic cat. With the new law, domestic trade of the Bengal cat would also require permits.

Bill can do more to tackle the problem: MPs

The three MPs who spoke up on the issue welcomed the amendments, but said the law could be further strengthened to combat the problem of illegal wildlife trade.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) proposed recategorising illegal wildlife trafficking as serious offences under the Organised Crime Act (OCA). This would target syndicates and masterminds behind these large-scale operations, rather than the runners, he said.

He added that including wildlife trade offences under the OCA gives the authorities more tools to investigate these kingpins, who would otherwise evade punishment under the framework of the Endangered Species Act.

Mr Ng noted that for an offence to be classified under the OCA, it must meet two criteria. It must pose a serious threat to public safety and security in Singapore, and be associated with organised crime in Singapore.

Wildlife trafficking could introduce zoonotic diseases - such as Covid-19 and monkeypox, making it a threat to human health, and it could also introduce invasive species that threaten native wildlife, he added.

Moreover, wildlife crime cases have also been connected to offences such as corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering, he said.

Mr Ng also pointed out that the sheer size and value of animal-part seizures at local borders also point to the possibility of organised crime.

Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) suggested using a reverse-listing model that would make "no trade" the default, in order to thwart illegal wildlife trade, especially as many threatened species may take years to make it into the Cites listing.

A reverse-listing model would require traders to produce proof of sustainable trade, and could also incorporate a default ban on newly discovered species for a period of time, so as to allow time for the species to be listed on Cites - if the facts so warrant.

Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) called on the Government to do more to investigate and conduct enforcement measures of illegal wildlife trade in the digital realm.

He added that the problem is getting more widespread on social media platforms such as Telegram, as well as the Dark Web, where wildlife trafficking syndicates have been conducting their operations.

In addition, Mr Yip emphasised the need for online technology companies to be held accountable for exposing wildlife crime and thwarting the sale of exotic pets online.

In response, Mr Tan said that the industry has been cooperative and committed to preventing the illegal sale of these products.

He added that the National Parks Board (NParks) works closely with the Singapore Police Force to extract information from digital devices that may be helpful in their investigations.

NParks also has a team of well-trained officers who can handle illegal wildlife trade, including combating cyber-enabled wildlife crime, he said.

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