AVA inspectors share tales of hunting down illegal wildlife owners

AVA inspectors share tales of desperate tactics by owners cornered by the authorities
Zaihan Mohamed Yusof Straits Times 18 Aug 17;

Nobody answered the door when two Agri-food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) inspectors made a surprise visit to a Bukit Panjang flat based on intelligence.

The pair - who wanted to be known only as John and Tom - left after an hour of waiting. But when they returned to the same flat four hours later, they struck gold.

They found a hedgehog, slightly bigger than an adult's palm, kept in a plastic tank inside the flat.

The Sunday Times was given an exclusive look into the inspectors' work by tagging along during the raid around a month ago, as they shared accounts of the desperate tactics used by illegal wildlife owners who find themselves becoming the prey of the authorities.

John, who is in his 40s and has eight years of experience, said that when cornered with incriminating evidence, some illegal wildlife owners would resort to hiding the animals or delaying investigations.

"There have been instances when the suspects kept their gates locked as they went back to their kitchens to do something funny... We will advise them not to do so," said John.

Tom, who is in his 30s, said some suspects would become verbally abusive. "(They) try to instil fear in us," he said.

Dr Anna Wong, the director of AVA's Import and Export Regulation Department/Quarantine & Inspection Group, said AVA is alerted to cases of illegal wildlife ownership or trade through feedback, tip-offs, inspections and surveillance.

Dr Wong said: "AVA officers face various challenges while conducting investigations or interacting with suspected wildlife owners or sellers. This includes sellers cutting off engagement with an investigation officer posing as a potential buyer or running away from officers. As there are always risks or dangers involved, each operation is carefully planned for."

Under the law, importing animals without an AVA permit is illegal and carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and/or jail sentence of up to a year.

It is also against the law to possess, advertise for sale or display to the public, including online, any illegal wildlife species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna or Flora (Cites).

Yet, the many local and foreign online advertisements and posts suggest a healthy trade.

From 2013 to May this year, AVA has handled 100 cases pertaining to the possession, sale or trade of live wild animals, including Cites and non-Cites animals seized from Singapore's borders, inland possession and online sales.

In 2015, there were 25 cases in which 463 wild animals were confiscated. The following year, the number of cases rose to 31, though fewer live animals - 162 - were seized.

From January to May this year, AVA has seized 128 live wild animals in 11 cases. John said: "It (online posts, blogs and advertisements) creates a buy-and-sell situation in Singapore. It's getting worse nowadays (as) we seem to be apprehending more people who are trying to sell."

AVA inspectors have seized rare animals like scorpions, tarantulas, pigtail macaques, fennec foxes and the Asian leopard cat.

The most commonly seized animals are star tortoises, hedgehogs, ball pythons, sugar gliders and leopard geckos, said Dr Wong.

For Tom, his strangest find during a raid was a pit viper snake.

He said: "In that case, we had asked the owner to take the glass box with the pit viper out.(Yet), he was actually playing with it. To us, it's a venomous snake."

At the Bukit Panjang flat, where the owner claimed she did not know that keeping a hedgehog was against the law, the inspectors' job was far from complete.

After taking her statement, the hedgehog was transported to the Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), where it was officially handed over. ST understands that while WRS receives confiscated wildlife at least "once or twice a month", it also gets wild animals abandoned by their owners.

An animal's body weight is measured and it is examined for parasites and eye or nasal discharge before being admitted into WRS' quarantine facility. Some animals arrive in "near-death" condition due to poor care and husbandry.

Added Dr Wong: "Wild animals are not suitable pets as some may transmit zoonotic diseases to humans and can be a public safety risk if mishandled, or if they escape into our dense urban environment...

"Demand for such animals would fuel illegal wildlife trade, which severely impacts the wild populations of numerous species."


THRIVING ILLEGAL TRADE

463

Number of live wild animals confiscated in 2015.

162

Number of live wild animals seized by AVA last year.

128

Number of live wild animals seized from January to May this year.


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