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Record seizures of pangolin scales: Smugglers ‘exploiting Singapore’s efficient ports’

SINGAPORE — Two massive seizures here of pangolin scales in less than a week show that transnational organised networks are exploiting Singapore’s efficient ports, said wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic on Wednesday (April 10).

A man holds a pangolin at a wild animal rescue center in Cuc Phuong, outside Hanoi, Vietnam September 12, 2016.

A man holds a pangolin at a wild animal rescue center in Cuc Phuong, outside Hanoi, Vietnam September 12, 2016.

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SINGAPORE — Two massive seizures here of pangolin scales in less than a week show that transnational organised networks are exploiting Singapore’s efficient ports, said wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic on Wednesday (April 10).

Commending the seizure of the shipments, Traffic senior communications officer Elizabeth John said the Singapore authorities need to work with the international community to uncover the criminals behind them.

“This should be the next line of inquiry for investigators,” said Ms John, who is based in Malaysia. “From previous cases, it is clearly the result of organised networks.”

It could be an extensive network of buyers and middlemen, presumably sourcing animals from a large number of individuals and consolidating the pangolin scales from across multiple locations in Central and West Africa — where the two pangolin species involved in Monday’s seizure are found, she said.

Alternatively, there have been cases in the past of leakages from official stockpiles of seized items and this is a possibility that the source countries in Africa should look into, she said.

“The shipment would need to be assembled, put aboard a vessel and offloaded at its destination — all of which requires a high degree of coordination and points the finger firmly at organised crime,” said Ms John.

A full investigation could throw valuable light on the trade dynamics and mode of operation of the traffickers, she said.

NPARKS WORKING WITH OVERSEAS EXPERTS

Asked if anyone has been arrested in relation to the two seizures, the National Parks Board (NParks) said investigations are ongoing.

It is working with overseas experts and sharing information with international organisations like Interpol to assist in further investigations and enforcement, said a spokesperson.

NParks said the authorities take a zero-tolerance stance on the use of Singapore as a conduit to engage in illegal wildlife trade, as well as the illegal sale or keeping of wildlife.

Under a global agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, international trade in pangolin is banned.

The seizure on Monday — the second in five days — amounted to 12.7 tonnes and was the equivalent of about 21,000 pangolins. It is worth about US$38.1 million (S$51.6 million), said the NParks, Singapore Customs and Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority on Wednesday.

On April 3, the authorities seized 12.9 tonnes of scales worth over S$52 million.

Both shipments were on their way from Nigeria to Vietnam and are among the largest seizures seen worldwide.

NParks said the scales will be destroyed to prevent them from re-entering the market.

MOST HEAVILY TRAFFICKED

Pangolins are among the most heavily trafficked wild mammals on earth. Of the eight pangolin species, four are African while four are Asian.

Their scales are used in traditional medicines, while their meat is considered a delicacy and seen by some to have medicinal value, said Traffic in a Dec 2017 report called The Global Trafficking of Pangolins: A Comprehensive Summary of Seizures and Trafficking Routes from 2010-2015. Their skins are made into leather products.

RISING PROMINENCE OF NIGERIA-VIETNAM ROUTE?

While the Nigeria-to-Vietnam trafficking route is not new, the seizures show the route could be rising in prominence, said Ms John.

Several recent reports of seizures have involved this route. In February, for instance, Vietnam’s Customs News site reported seizures of pangolin scales and ivory that were shipped from Apapa port in Nigeria to a port in Hai Phong in Vietnam.

With the two seizures in Singapore, other South-east Asian countries should be more vigilant of shipments on this route, said Ms John.

According to the 2017 Traffic report, China and the United States were identified as the most common destinations for international pangolin trafficking from 2010 to 2015.

China was the main destination for large-quantity shipments of scales involving more than a tonne, but other destinations include Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Vietnam, the report said.

Trafficking routes are constantly shifting and new trade routes emerge every year, the report noted.

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