SINGAPORE – Aug 12 is World Elephant Day, and Singapore celebrated it with a strong conservation message: The domestic trade in elephant ivory will be banned.

The ban, which will kick in on Sept 1, 2021, will close a loophole that allows ivory products acquired before 1990 to be traded in Singapore.

“The ban will mean that the sale of elephant ivory and ivory products, and public display of elephant ivory and ivory products for the purpose of sale will be prohibited in Singapore,” said the National Parks Board (NParks) in a statement on Monday (Aug 12).

The two-year grace period will “provide traders with time to decide what they wish to do with their ivory stock”, said NParks.

The ban is an important step in signalling Singapore’s zero tolerance for the illegal wildlife trade.

Singapore is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), an international treaty which banned commercial trade in ivory in 1990.

Since then, the Republic has banned international trade in elephant ivory, but domestic trade is allowed if dealers could show that their items were imported before 1990, or acquired before the elephant species in question was listed in Cites

But it is near impossible to tell if an ivory product was acquired before the Cites ruling, said Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC and chief executive of wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

The blanket ban on domestic trade in ivory will close this loophole.

NParks director-general for wildlife trade control Leong Chee Chiew said: “NParks, as the national authority that enforces Cites in Singapore, is committed to stopping the trade of elephant ivory and its products for the conservation and protection of the world’s elephants. This is aligned with the views shared by the community who is similarly concerned about the impact that trade in elephant ivory has on the animal’s population numbers.”

NParks’ announcement on Monday came after a public consultation exercise between the Government and stakeholders such as ivory retailers, the public and non-government groups since 2017.

Almost every one – or 99 per cent of feedback received – was supportive of the blanket ban. The overwhelming support shows that local demand for elephant ivory is not high.

While Singapore’s latest move is an applaudable one, the real challenge it faces is how to prevent the use of our ports for the global, and often cruel, trade in animals and their body parts.

According to conservation group Humane Society International, China is the largest market for ivory products, followed by the United States. But the Republic’s role as a nexus in the supply chain should not be underestimated.

International environmental groups, such as wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic, have long emphasised Singapore’s role as a transshipment hub between source countries such as Africa and destination countries where there is high demand for the products.

Last month (July), a record 8.8 tonnes of elephant ivory were seized in Singapore- believed to be one of the largest hauls worldwide in recent years. That shipment of ivory, estimated to have come from nearly 300 African elephants, was said to be worth S$17.6 million. The seizure came a mere three months after the Singapore authorities seized 177kg of cut-up and carved elephant ivory in April.

Said Mr Ng: “Gone are the days where people are hiding ivory products in their pockets. The huge volume of the trade shows that traders think there are low chances of getting caught here.”

Mr Ng, who has long spoken up in Parliament about the need for a domestic ban on ivory, welcomed the impending ban and added: “The next step is to strengthen our borders with the use of technology. This, coupled with tougher penalties, will help to wipe out the trade.”

Once the ban comes into effect, those found to have offered ivory or ivory products for sale, or for public display for the purpose of sale, may be charged under the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act. Those convicted can be fined up to $10,000 per specimen, not exceeding $100,000 in total and/or be jailed for up to 12 months.

But, as Mr Ng pointed out, the next step would be to back this up with tougher enforcement, and to follow the money trail for illegal wildlife shipments found here to help international agencies with the prosecution of kingpins.

The importance of enforcement was something photojournalist Lim Yaohui and I learnt last year during reporting trips to countries in the region to investigate the illegal wildlife trade.

We had found that bans on animal parts and products simply drove the trade underground. In Vietnam, for example, the sale of bear bile is illegal. But we still managed to find shops quietly selling 1ml vials of the product for S$4. About 80ml to 100ml of bile can be extracted from one bear at a time, with many bear farms housing multiple bears.

This is not surprising, considering the financial stakes involved.

Estimates from Interpol, United Nations (UN) Environment, 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.

As with most things in this era of globalisation, the illegal wildlife trade cannot be tackled by one country alone. As a major transshipment hub through which tonnes of illegal animal parts and products are smuggled, Singapore has an important role to play too.