What does the illegal wildlife trade mean to you? It is cruel and unethical, most people would say.
But is it an issue that needs to be tackled urgently?
"Don't get angry," my best friend prefaced. "But I would say no, it doesn't affect people directly."
That is not quite true. Many are aware of the cruelty involved in the illegal wildlife trade, thanks to campaigns run by conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
But studies by various organisations, including Interpol, international affairs think-tank Chatham House and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have shown that the illegal wildlife trade goes beyond cruelty to animals.
The illegal wildlife trade is linked closely to other forms of serious crime, such as drug trafficking, murder and even terrorism. In Africa, for example, there are direct links between large-scale crime networks and the trade in high-value products such as ivory, rhino horn and timber, says Mr David Emmett, senior vice-president of Conservation International's Asia-Pacific Field Division.
"Wildlife trafficking has been directly linked to the funding of rebel organisations and terrorist networks, including the Janjaweed militia in Southern Sudan and the Lord's Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo."
Nearer home, the Malaysian authorities seized about 300 species of live tortoises in bags that also contained drugs at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2010.
It is easy to understand why the illegal wildlife trade is attractive and has links to other crimes. Estimates from Interpol, UNEP, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime put the value of the global illegal wildlife trade at up to US$23 billion (S$32 billion) every year - a huge carrot for criminals.
Meanwhile, Interpol noted in a recent report: "(Criminals) exploit other opportunities in pursuit of their objective, whether it be financial or otherwise, and in doing so, draw on other crime types such as corruption, fraud and money laundering to facilitate their primary activity."
It is hard to estimate how much of the revenue from the illegal wildlife trade goes to other forms of crime due to the clandestine nature of illegal activity, but the links are clear.
Mr Emmett says: "The United States is now investing in wildlife trade prevention as one of its many approaches to addressing terrorism. The linkages are that strong."
INACTION AFFECTS IMAGE
Singapore plays a big role in many environmental issues, most conservation groups and international organisations agree. But how the Republic has apparently dealt with perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade recently has raised concern.
Last month, a district judge here dismissed the case against a managing director and his firm, which allegedly imported about 30,000 rosewood logs worth US$50 million without a permit.
The judge noted that the Madagascar authorities had cleared the items for export and that the goods were in transit here.
Singapore's Attorney-General's Chambers has said that it is appealing against the decision, and the case has drawn international attention.
The Environmental Investigation Agency, which lobbies for the protection of endangered species and climate issues, has urged Madagascar's minister of environment, ecology, sea and forests to probe how the cargo was cleared for export by Madagascar .
Mr Kaveh Zahedi, UNEP's regional director and representative for Asia and the Pacific, says that for many issues, Singapore sees the global common good and acts to protect it, such as in the case when it promoted a legally binding agreement in Paris recently.
It has also acted in other cases, such as the forest fires in Indonesia and the haze, by passing laws that can hold companies accountable in the Republic.
Mr Zahedi is of the view that all environmental issues, including illegal wildlife shipments - whether in transit or not - should be "tackled with the same moral authority".
Singapore is not a source country where animals are poached. But Dr Chris Shepherd, South-east Asia director for the wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic says the Republic is still a strong link in the supply chain on two counts - as a transit and as a consumer country.
The latest figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) show that from 2013 to Dec 6 this year, there were 25 cases involving the trade of wildlife parts. Of these, 16 involved imports into Singapore, while nine were transhipments.
Dr Shepherd says: "Singapore plays an important role as a transit country, for instance, in the illegal ivory trade, the trade in threatened tortoises and freshwater turtles and more.
"It is also an important wildlife consumer country due to the demand for exotic wild pets such as birds and reptiles, and due to the demand for products used in traditional medicine."
For instance, undercover investigations by local wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) have shown that while the number of shops carrying tiger parts has fallen, there are still shops here which sell such items.
An AVA spokesman says the authority tackles the trade through various means, including monitoring retail outlets and online sources, conducting routine and surprise checks, and investigating alleged trade based on information gathered.
Singapore, she says, has "zero tolerance of being used as a conduit to smuggle endangered species and their parts and products".
Those found guilty can be fined up to $50,000 per specimen, a total of $500,000, and/or up to two years' jail.
Conservation International's Mr Emmett says that Singapore's leadership in other aspects of environmental management, such as its "City in a Garden" model, has made it a role model in the region.
"It is a thought leader in the region and the world. It is even more crucial that Singapore looks more closely at this issue and creates a process by which it can become part of the solution to addressing trade in transit, such as by creating standards and legal frameworks on the transit of illegal wildlife products that can then be replicated globally," he says.
Global leaders acknowledged at the recent climate talks in Paris that forests, which soak up large amounts of carbon dioxide, are vital in stalling climate change.
But when trees are logged illegally and animals killed indiscriminately, forest habitats are affected.
Dr Sonja Luz, director of conservation and research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which runs a "You Buy, They Die" campaign with Traffic to fight wildlife crime, says forest ecosystems are very dependent on the flora and fauna within.
"Every little creature has a role to play and is an important piece within the various ecological cycles and systems, for instance, as a food source for other species, as seed dispersers, pollinators," she says.
"Unsustainable harvesting and consumption of flora and fauna will therefore severely affect these important ecosystems and, without the Asian rainforests, we will face more and more irreversible environmental catastrophes."
National University of Singapore bird researcher David Tan pointed out that the forest-dwelling white-rumped shama, for instance, is a bird often poached for its singing ability.
"Insectivores like the shama help to keep the insect population in check and in balance within the forest ecosystem," he says.
Another bird, the straw-headed bulbul, which eats fruit, is likely to play an important role as a seed disperser. But it has been poached to near-extinction in Thailand and in Java, Indonesia.
The illegal wildlife trade is known for its cruelty to animals. But it has a far wider impact on many other areas of human life.
Mr Emmett says: "The bottom line is this - a country that can do something to stop illegal wildlife needs to do so. Else, they are unknowingly allowing corruption, environmental degradation, and social instability in developing countries around the world."
Environmental crime is a lucrative trade that rakes in billions of dollars each year for syndicates around the world. Singapore must work with other countries to bring such trade to an end.
This article was first published on December 17, 2015.
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