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Singapore a key transit hub for wildlife smuggling

High-value birds and reptiles frequently pass through it's borders illegally. -AFP

Tue, Mar 30, 2010

By Philip Lim

SINGAPORE, March 30, 2010 (AFP) - Midori the iguana sits on a platform contemplating his snack of fresh fruit. He is one of the lucky ones, rescued and nursed back to health in Singapore, a major hub for wildlife trafficking.

Three months ago the huge and notoriously touchy 1.5-metre (five-foot) adult male was brought into the non-profit Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) rescue centre in bad shape.

Director Anbarasi Boopal said Midori had mouth ulcers and excreted a razor blade on his first day at the sanctuary.

"He was under critical care for a while, now he is completely fine," Boopal told AFP as she beamed at the iguana, due to be repatriated to his natural habitat in the lush rainforests of Central and South America.

The lizard, whose name, given by his rescuers, means "green" in Japanese, was likely part of the steady stream of creatures brought into Singapore illegally when he was smaller and then abandoned after growing too big.

Other mistreated pets and trafficked animals are not so fortunate, destined for slaughter or a life of confinement away from their natural habitats.

Singapore's extensive trade links and efficient ports have lured opportunistic wildlife smugglers, who use the country as a transit point to ship exotic fauna to customers worldwide, animal welfare activists said.

Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC lists Singapore as among the world's top 10 wildlife smuggling hubs.

"The animals are just shipped into Singapore, (which acts) like a transit point from other countries like Indonesia or Malaysia or other neighbouring countries or surrounding islands," Boopal said.

High-value birds and reptiles such as cockatoos, turtles and snakes frequently pass through the island nation's borders illegally en route to other countries to be sold as pets, food or for medicine.

There is also trade in even more exotic wildlife such as star tortoises, hornbills and the sugar glider, a small marsupial, Boopal said.

Figures released by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) show that the number of controlled items detected, including live wildlife, as well as unsanctioned food products, hit 5,900 in 2009, more than triple the level recorded in 2008.

The ICA called the increase "significant" and said it noted the "wide array of animals and wildlife species that travellers had attempted to smuggle into Singapore".

But activists say despite the increased level of detection, they represent just the tip of the iceberg, believing traffickers are exploiting Singapore's international reputation to boost trade.

"When you smuggle the animals into Singapore and you export out with a country of origin as Singapore, it is very rare that other countries will check because of our very good reputation," said Louis Ng, executive director of ACRES.

He said that Singapore's free trade agreements with other countries also meant smugglers could often avoid paying tax and made clearing customs easier.

Ng said checks for wildlife and animal products remain inadequate, believing sniffer dogs would help plug the loophole, such as those used in South Korea.

Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC's Southeast Asian acting regional director, urged the government to be tougher in cracking down on illegal trade.

"The authorities in Singapore and in other importing-exporting countries should take great care in ensuring the wildlife they are importing is from a legal source and has been acquired in a legal manner," he said.

The ACRES centre, where Midori is recuperating, received more than 220 abandoned, surrendered or rescued lizards, tortoises and turtles in just seven months after opening last August, many of them illegal and endangered.

Boopal forgives Midori his bad temper, saying signs of stress in the presence of humans can be a positive sign. "He gets a bit stressed when people walk nearby, so he might start lashing his tail," Boopal said. "This is good. He is still wild, which is good."

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