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Wed, Nov 05, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Illegal wildlife trade is at a `dangerously high level'

REUTERS , SINGAPORE

In gritty cardboard boxes, exotic tortoises are stacked like saucers, their heads taped back into their shells. In rolled up socks, rare lizards are holed up in suitcases stored in an overhead flight compartment.

Wildlife smuggling is on the rise, say authorities in Singapore, whose ports are increasingly used as transit points in the shuttling of endangered animals between the US and tropical Asian countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

"It is at a dangerously high level," said Chris Shepherd, regional programme manager at Traffic Southeast Asia, a Malaysia-based non-government body that monitors wildlife trade.

Precise data on how many endangered animals are shipped around the world is extremely difficult to obtain, said Elizabeth Bennett, director of hunting and wildlife trade at the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

"The very fact that it is illegal in most countries means that official numbers are unobtainable," she said. "And data collected by researchers tend to be guesses at best."

But evidence in Singapore points to a rising Asian trade.

Four wildlife smuggling syndicates have been identified in Singapore and authorities have confiscated animals worth S$300,000 (US$174,200) in the first five months of the year, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) said.

That compares with S$65,000 for the whole of last year.

"Most conservationists working on wildlife trade issues will recognise Singapore as a centre for wildlife trade in Asia," said Vadivu Govind, president of Animal Watch, an animal rights group based in Singapore. "It's geological location makes it a good transshipment point."

Singapore, where trade in endangered species is strictly regulated, has reported 21 cases of illegal wildlife trade so far this year, said the AVA. Many involve star-patterned tortoises, a popular pet often smuggled from Madras in southern India and fed in Singapore before being shipped out again, often to America.

In September, an Indian national was caught with 499 star tortoises in his luggage. In July, a Singaporean was indicted in the US for shipping 198 turtles, 25 tortoises and three monitor lizards from Singapore to Orlando, Florida.

Cockatoos are commonly smuggled in from Indonesia. Rattlesnakes and scorpions come from the US, while tortoises often from India.

"The animals mainly come from the US, India and Indonesia. It's got to do with availability of these animals in these countries," said Govind.

The US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said more than half of the protected areas in Asia have lost at least one species of large mammal due to hunting, usually to supply illegal wildlife trade.

Animals facing extinction include the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Siamese crocodile, said the WCS, which estimates that illegal global wildlife trafficking is worth about US$8 billion annually.

Much of the problem is concentrated around Asia's tropical forests, said the WCS's Bennett.

"The scale and impact of the illegal wildlife trade is greater overall in Asia than in other parts of the world," she said.

In Vietnam, 12 species -- including the Asian elephant and the wild water buffalo -- have become virtually extinct in the last 40 years due to hunting and wildlife trade, the WCS said.

In northern Myanmar, tigers have been systematically hunted to near-extinction, it said. Tiger body parts, particularly tiger bones, are prized ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine to cure ailments such as epilepsy.

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