COVID-19 SPECIAL

Tortoise rescued from illegal wildlife trade stranded in Singapore due to Covid-19

Hawkeye the Forsten's tortoise had been due to return to Sulawesi in April, but the Covid-19 outbreak has delayed those plans. PHOTO: ACRES

SINGAPORE - Hawkeye, a Forsten's tortoise, is native to Indonesia, but has found herself in Singapore as the victim of illegal wildlife trade in the region.

In August 2015, she was spotted in a private estate by a member of the public, who then called a 24-hour wildlife rescue hotline operated by the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres). The slow-moving reptile was swiftly picked up.

Since then, Hawkeye has been living at Acres' wildlife rescue centre in Jalan Lekar, along with more than 150 other rescued animals.

Finally last month, after years of liaising with the Indonesian authorities and obtaining the necessary permits, a team from Acres was due to accompany her back to Sulawesi, Indonesia to release her into a protected habitat where other tortoises of her species reside.

But due to the various travel restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, those plans are now on hold.

The delay is but one of several difficulties Acres has faced since the start of the outbreak.

The registered charity, whose objective is to promote animal welfare, is funded entirely by donations from the public. Its chief executive is Member of Parliament Louis Ng, who started Acres in 2001.

In March, the ban on large gatherings forced Acres to cancel its annual gala dinner, its biggest source of donations, said deputy chief executive Kalai Balakrishnan. Most of its fund-raising operations have also shut down.

Its monthly costs are upwards of $60,000, with $45,000 going towards its 24-hour rescue services, animal care and food, land rental, utilities, veterinary bills, and staff salaries. It also operates two vans for rescue efforts.

The remaining $15,000 goes towards administrative costs, as well as educational efforts and public campaigns.

"A large part of our work has to do with helping the community. We want to build more awareness among society of the many issues animals face, which can become issues for people too", said Mr Balakrishnan, who has been with Acres since 2011.

While most of its operations have been scaled back due to measures adopted for the circuit breaker period, Acres' animal care work and 24-hour rescue services are carrying on as essential services.

However, more than half of its 20 full-time staff are working from home, while nearly all of its volunteers have been unable to help.

As a result, Acres has had to reshuffle its manpower to support the care of more than 150 reptiles, birds and mammals. Its rescue hotline received more than 1,100 calls from the public in April alone.

"Manpower has always been an issue, but it has been amplified during the circuit breaker. Somehow, we are managing to continue, but it is crucial that we remain financially stable to keep our work going," added Mr Balakrishnan.

As Acres struggles to stay afloat, members of the private sector have come forward to offer their help.

Big Red, a local environmental solutions company, has provided its disinfection and anti-microbial treatment services to Acres free-of-charge.

It has disinfected Acres' premises, and, crucially, its two vans that traverse Singapore rescuing animals, which would usually cost customers around $5,000.

It is also providing Acres with a donation of essential items needed for the animals' daily care, such as cable-ties, newspapers, metal racks and spray pumps.

Said Mr Himanshu Bakhda, managing director of Big Red: " In such a period of economic uncertainty, we felt that Acres could do with as much help and support as they can get. The cost of our services is nothing compared to what they contribute to society."

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