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  The Straits Times 3 Jan 06
Illegal wildlife trade second only to drugs
by Khushwant Singh

THE 400 Indian star tortoises smuggled out of Chennai's airport had their heads taped back into their shells and were stacked like saucers in the cardboard box. Costing as little as $5 each in India, a star tortoise can fetch up to $120 in pet shops in Chinatown, and US$400 (S$670) in Japan and the United States. The tortoises - a threatened species - are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). A quarter could die during the journey.

But the profits to be made are enormous and Interpol - the international police agency - estimates the global illegal wildlife trade to be worth US$5 billion to US$7 billion a year and is surpassed only by the trade in illegal drugs.

South-east Asia is a major transit point for smugglers, say anti-wildlife smuggling groups. And such trade is not uncommon in Singapore, says activist Louis Ng, executive director of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Governments are also recognising that the region is a hot spot for the global trade in wildlife and Asean's 10 member countries agreed last October to form a regional law enforcement network to combat the illegal trade in animals and plants.

Mr Ng fears that the illegal trade is likely to grow unless regional authorities crack down harder on smugglers and errant pet shops.

An undercover investigation of 100 Singapore pet shops by his society last July revealed that one in five pet shops had prohibited animals for sale. These included the Australian snake-head turtle, the Chinese stripe-necked turtle, Chinese softshell turtle and the pig-nosed turtle.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) was informed and four pet shops were issued warning letters which made it clear that any future transgression would land them in court. A fifth shop was warned against selling endangered animals. Another 13 pet shops were fined between $100 and $1,000. AVA officers routinely inspect about 100 pet shops a month. Five smugglers were prosecuted in Singapore last year, down from nine the previous year. They were fined between $1,000 and $56,000 and given jail terms of two to five months. The $56,000 fine was imposed on an aquarium owner for illegally importing 14 species of hard corals and giant clams from Indonesia. He was fined $4,000 per species.

Mr Ng said the penalties are not strong enough to deter smugglers. 'Penalties under the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act is a maximum $5,000 fine which may be accompanied by up to a year in jail for each species,' he said. 'All a trafficker has to do is smuggle thousands of animals of one species at a time and the fine would be minuscule compared to the profits.'

Mr Ng urged the Ministry of National Development to increase the penalties and base them on the number of animals traded rather than on the number of species.

The ministry informed Mr Ng that AVA was reviewing the Act and will consider 'updating the provisions on penalties and enforcement powers to ensure that they are an effective deterrent', but offered no timeframe.

Mr Ng said: 'Wildlife is becoming increasingly threatened and we must move quickly and come down hard on the perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. 'It'll be too late once the animals become seriously endangered.'

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