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  Straits Times Forum 28 Jun 06
More hands-on opportunities needed to curb animal abuse
Letter from Niam Xing Wei

In his article 'Take a strong stance against animal smugglers, abusers' (ST, June 23), Mr Louis Ng stressed the need for more potent laws in curbing the illegal smuggling and abuse of animals, and the necessity of raising awareness among Singaporeans in order to uproot this scourge. Animal conservation and welfare cannot be neglected. Those who abuse animals are often already violently inclined - they are equally likely to abuse children.

Pertaining to issues on animal conservation and welfare, the phrase 'raising awareness' is simply hackneyed. What began as a means to allow us to see animals as equals is now beginning to look increasingly like an aim in itself. Once awareness has risen, that's it.

Moreover, raising awareness on the home front can do little to address the problem of illegal smuggling, as the meagre demand from Singaporeans can hardly justify the risks involved in international smuggling.

Our current mindset is that, with our greater concerns over bread and butter, perhaps animal conservation and welfare can be left to the international community. But this little red dot has already proven its mettle in humanitarian efforts in catastrophes from the Asian tsunami to Mount Merapi. So we can also play a part in conserving the earth's biodiversity.

Conservation efforts in Singapore are lackadaisical - not because of a dearth of groups or activists, but due to the non-existence of a unifying common goal. The Chinese have their giant panda, the Australians the koala bear, and the North Americans their bison. As a result, current conservation efforts here tend to be localised, focusing on conserving marginal stretches of pristine land.

Meanwhile, past efforts have been discontinued or their purposes distorted. Earthvisions, a perennial programme on Arts Central, has disappeared from our TV screens, while the division between a nature reserve and a public park is becoming increasingly blurred.

What we really need to do is involve our youth and volunteers in conservation projects - to allow them have a personal stake in the region's biodiversity.

Mention 'volunteers in conservation' and what comes to mind are images of litter-picking events on beaches and in forests, or acting as a nature guide.

What I am referring to, though, is participation in serious projects alongside researchers, or in projects which have a direct impact on the livelihood of a species; for instance, habitat reconstruction.

Only when we personally witness how our actions have helped an endangered species can there be a positive influence on how we view our non-human counterparts. Since we have no such opportunities at home, the Asia-Pacific region is the most logical alternative.

Recently, a local bank sponsored a group of students to participate in a research project in Australia. Such impactful opportunities are more the exception than the norm, when compared to volunteerism in old folks' homes, or orphanages, and other humanitarian efforts.

We have no lack of volunteers, just relevant opportunities. With the establishment of the World Wide Fund for Nature's newest office in Singapore, perhaps it is time for the Singapore Zoo, local non-governmental organisations, the relevant authorities and companies committed to corporate social responsibility, to play a bigger part in contributing to the conservation cause, by leveraging on this international NGO's middleman role.

Providing opportunities for the nation's volunteers to be directly involved in raising animal welfare will certainly be more effective in solving the problem of animal abuse and smuggling than merely 'raising awareness'.

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