Best of our wild blogs: 5 Jun 17

Reaching out with R.U.M. in May and June!
Restore Ubin Mangroves (R.U.M.) Initiative

Awesome Chek Jawa Open House!
wild shores of singapore

Lifers and Losses at Kranji Marshes
Winging It

Twin-barred Tree Snake (Chrysopelea pelias) @ Upper Peirce
Monday Morgue

Read more!

Meet some of HDB's exotic and illegal tenants

Exotic pets are finding homes and thriving in high-rise Singapore, despite strict laws and stiff fines against ownership. Insight examines the scene here.
Matthew Mohan and Aqil Haziq Mahmud Straits Times 4 Jun 17;

Fatty the bearded dragon crawls around a Housing Board executive flat on its stubby legs. The blotchy orange beast belongs to a species of lizards named for its "beard" - the underside of its throat that turns black when it is stressed.

Four leopard geckos curl up nearby under plastic rocks in tanks.

"Fatty's very docile," says their owner, 23-year-old undergraduate Nina, as she strokes the scaly animal. (All names of exotic pet owners, smugglers and sellers have been withheld owing to the illicit nature of the industry.)

The half-metre-long bearded dragon is so well behaved that even Nina's mother can handle it.

However, under the Wild Animals and Birds Act, it is illegal to keep, trap or kill wild animals such as Fatty without a licence. If found guilty, Nina could face a fine of $1,000 per animal and have her five reptiles confiscated.

If the animals are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), offenders without a Cites permit can be fined up to $50,000 per specimen (up to $500,000 in total), and/or be jailed for up to two years.

On Wednesday, Tai Qi Hui, 32, was fined $6,900 for having illegal wildlife in her possession, including 14 exotic lizards, a snake, an ornate horned frog and an endangered veiled chameleon.

The only live animals allowed for sale and possession in Singapore are dogs, cats, small rodents, licensed fish and birds, as well as three species of reptiles and amphibians - red-eared terrapins, green tree frogs and Malayan box turtles - and land hermit crabs.

However, the keeping of exotic animals as pets, and the trade in them, is on the rise. The number of cases involving their possession or sale doubled from 10 in 2014 to 20 in 2015, says the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

Cases involving illegal live wildlife seized in Singapore have also gone up. The number more than doubled from 12 in 2014 to 25 in 2015, according to news reports. Last year, 31 cases were reported.

And it can be a lucrative trade. One Singapore dealer says he sold a tiger for $40,000 and a clouded leopard for $12,000.

The AVA notes that animals such as reptiles, amphibians and primates are unsuitable as pets because they disrupt the ecosystem and affect Singapore's biodiversity if released into the wild.

Yet, some are calling for the laws to be relaxed, claiming that the authorities are lax in enforcing them. The AVA could not immediately be reached for comment.

Others say the high demand in the region for the exotic animals is driving them to extinction, and want enforcement stepped up.


Wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic has ranked Singapore among the world's top 10 wildlife smuggling hubs. Traders exploit the Republic's efficient transport links and strategic geographical location to fuel the desire for exotic pets in the region.

This is in spite of the country being a signatory to Cites - an international agreement signed in 1986 to ensure that trade does not threaten wildlife species with extinction.

What's more, exotic pet ownership among Singaporeans means the Republic is more than just a conduit for illegal exotic animals, say wildlife activists.

"A lot of the animals are stopping here," says Mr Kalai Vanan, deputy chief executive of wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Last year, Acres handled 133 wildlife trade cases, including those involving live animals and animal parts. It also receives two to three illegal exotic pet-related calls per week. In cases where exotic pets are abandoned, the non-profit group houses them at its Wildlife Rescue Centre before repatriating them to their countries of origin.

"It's definitely a problem," says Mr Kalai. "We've no idea how many out there are being owned. The numbers are probably staggering."


Sneaked across the Causeway last year, Tako the hedgehog was a surprise gift for 24-year-old barista Jo, who keeps the eight-month-old creature in her HDB flat.

"I just made a random comment like, 'I wish I had a hedgehog'. Then, I went overseas and came back, and my friend was like, 'I bought you one'," she says.

Experts note that people are motivated to own the animals by a variety of psychological factors. These include the prestige factor, or the desire to be different, says Dr Michael Gumert, a psychology professor at Nanyang Technological University.

"If you have something that is rare and unique, that's more valuable than something common," he says."(Also) some people like exotic things more than others. They want something cool."

This resonates with owners such as Dut, 41, who has been keeping exotic pets for the past 15 years.

"If you look at the people who keep reptiles, there's a certain type. It is because they don't like the mainstream," notes the graphic designer, who owns two bearded dragons and a black tarantula from Brazil.


James’ Indian star tortoises (above) were a gift from his late grandfather. PHOTO: MATTHEW MOHAN
The welfare of exotic pets in captivity is a concern that the authorities and animal rights groups share.

According to the AVA, exotic pets are likely to be subjected to "unsuitable living conditions, poor diet and pet owners' lack of knowledge of proper care".

Acres founder and Member of Parliament Louis Ng agrees. "In the vast majority of cases we see, these animals are housed in appalling conditions."

But Nina insists: "Reptiles die easily because of irresponsible people. You have to be disciplined as an owner."

Fatty swivels its chunky head to stare at her as she explains how she paid close to $1,000 for it: "Its former owner was about to emigrate, and if I didn't take Fatty, he would have let it go in the wild."

However, the AVA points out on its website that there is the risk that exotic pets might sneak out and traumatise neighbours.

Indeed, a metre-long ball python owned by Li, who is in his 60s, escaped. "I forgot to put the weight on top of its tank, and the snake came out and caused my talking mynah bird to have a heart attack."

According to Moses, the 25-year-old owner of three snakes and a baby caiman, ball pythons are "escape artists". Just three years ago, his juvenile pastel ball python, which he had kept in a plastic box, slithered out of his flat.

Residents in his estate say they are wary of such pets. One said she would be concerned if her neighbour owned a pet snake that might threaten her daughter's well-being.

But Nina's 15-year-old neighbour has no qualms about visiting Fatty. The secondary school student says: "Reptiles are cool."


So is the current ban on keeping exotic pets necessary?

Acres thinks it is. "Somewhere along the line, they were all wild caught, bred in horrible conditions just to cater to those people trying to make money," says Mr Kalai.

Some say more could be done to enforce the ban. They claim that the AVA does not prioritise clamping down on the illegal pet industry.

"Because the pet trade is one of our big industries, the AVA doesn't want to rock the boat," says wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai. "So, they are not as efficient in the enforcement as they should be."

Traffic South-east Asia's regional director Chris Shepherd, meanwhile, says the local authorities "have been doing a lot more than other countries in the region, but still could do more".

"We really need to see these wildlife traders put in jail," he adds, urging enforcement agencies to impose stricter penalties and conduct more thorough investigations.

When it comes to enforcement, the AVA works with Acres to conduct raids in illegal wildlife cases, especially after receiving tip-offs.

During raids, AVA officers can also seize laptops and mobile phones belonging to those suspected of operating large-scale illegal wildlife businesses.

In 2014, Acres called for harsher reprisals against a man who illegally kept 32 wild animals. He was fined $41,000, an amount Acres said was less than a tenth of the maximum he was facing.

A year later, Acres also proposed tackling the trade by using sniffer dogs at border checkpoints, but the AVA said it was less cost-effective than existing methods like routine or random checks.

Mr Bernard Harrison, who was executive director of the Singapore Zoo for nearly two decades, says the authorities could do better: "If they felt it was important, they would."

Addressing the problem will take more than just a change in mentality, though. Mr Ng says the AVA's wildlife section does not send a "very strong deterrent message to would-be offenders or traders" because it has insufficient resources.

"I want to increase the number of enforcement officers - there are only three senior inspectors to manage the entire wildlife trade in Singapore," he says, adding that he will take the issue to Parliament.


Despite the argument against keeping exotic pets, however, some experts feel that it is time to review the current wide-ranging ban.

Dr Fred Chua, a veterinarian who has treated exotic pets for more than a decade, wants exceptions for certain animals like Indian star tortoises. He explains that reptiles like tortoises are not big eaters, so they will not affect local biodiversity if released. They also have little chance of survival in the wild because of Singapore's tropical environment, he adds.

Sugar gliders, too, can be kept at home, provided they are given ample space, says Mr Harrison. "You can keep exotic animals pretty well in captivity, and if you treat them well, there isn't a problem with the animal welfare side."

He calls for serious exotic pet enthusiasts to lobby for legalisation. "If they worked out some strategies that would allow them to abide by certain protocol, and breed these pets so they'd be disease-free, I'm sure it could be done."

Together with the National Parks Board, the AVA studies how an escaped pet would affect native wildlife before permitting an animal to be kept. Nearly a decade ago, the green tree frog and Malayan box turtle, both previously banned, were legalised as pets.


Until efforts are stepped up, illegal pet dealers and owners continue to be one step ahead of the authorities.

Retired army commando Freddy, 50, once whisked seven African helmeted turtles from under the noses of three AVA officers.

His friend, who kept the turtles illegally, called him for help and stalled the officers. Before they could return later that evening, Freddy went to his friend's flat and stuffed the turtles into a bag. The AVA officers returned that evening to find nothing illegal. "I was puzzled. If the AVA really wanted to check, they would have stayed."

Some owners show off their illegal pets on social media without fear of getting caught. Marketing executives Charlotte and Rachel, both 24, own a Mexican kingsnake, corn snake and two ball pythons. The close friends have no qualms about sharing photos of their serpents on Snapchat and Instagram.

Charlotte says: "There are friends who ask if I'm scared of getting caught, but I can say that I'm in Malaysia or at my friend's house."

She suggests introducing a permit system that requires exotic pet owners to pass a rigorous course on handling such animals. After permits are issued, she says, the authorities could conduct routine checks on the pets.

"Then again," she concedes, "this is not exactly a 'must-have'."

This feature is adapted from a final-year project by three journalism students from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

Read more!

Teens' book teaches kids about wildlife

Tang Fan Xi Straits Times 5 Jun 17;

Hershie the Hermit Crab was created by a group of four teenagers from Raffles Institution for a book to educate young children about Singapore's intertidal wildlife.

And the story of Hershie's quest for a new shell in the book A Crab, A Shell And A Little Help came to life all over Singapore the week before last as part of the Biodiversity Week for Schools, an event organised by the National Parks Board (NParks).

A workshop for pre-schoolers, Playtime with Hershie the Hermit Crab, was conducted across 224 pre-schools from May 22 to 28.

The book project began in 2015 and ended last year as part of the Raffles Ecological Literacy Programme by Ms Han Rae Ann, Mr Bertrand Yan and Ms Natasha Hoong, all now 19, and illustrated by Ms Renee Chua, also 19, then a H2 Art student.

Students who take part in the programme at Raffles Institution embark on field trips to different places rich in biodiversity, such as Sisters' Islands and Tioman Island. The team was inspired to make their book marine-themed through these field trips.

After their graduation last year, Ms Han and Ms Chua went on to take part in the making of a video and the development of an interactive activity book with stickers and colouring activities with NParks for the workshop.

Along the way, themes such as the impact of pollution on marine wildlife were introduced as Hershie encounters different animals.

In one such encounter, Hershie meets Timmy the sea turtle, who is eating a plastic bag that it thinks is a jellyfish.

It is the first time NParks is partnering a school to develop an activity book for a workshop specially for pre-schoolers during Biodiversity Week for Schools.

On the book A Crab, A Shell And A Little Help, Ms Han said: "It was a challenging process, especially since we had to juggle both our studies and this project last year, which was also our A-levels year. We didn't realise the actual impact of our work until we actually saw it ourselves."

Their project proved to be even more fulfilling when NParks incorporated their story into Biodiversity Week for Schools this year.

After attending one of the workshops which was conducted at My First Skool at Block 329, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, on May 23, Ms Chua said: "We thought that the impact of our storybook would be limited to its distribution to primary schools. But now, seeing the children enjoy our story and the interactive activity book we designed is especially rewarding."

Ms Cheryl Tan, 36, principal of the pre-school, pointed out that teaching children about the importance of conservation is crucial so that "they know how to play their part even as children".

The pre-school has been seeking to inculcate the importance of conservation among its pupils through teaching them about the 3Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle - and weekly gardening sessions at its own garden.

English lead teacher Shanthinayagi, 48 , said she is heartened to see her pupils' growing grasp of the concept of environmental conservation.

"Seeing them ask more questions and hearing from parents how they have taken such knowledge home is a huge satisfaction as it proves that they truly understand the importance of conservation," said the teacher.

The teachers and pupils at My First Skool also took part in Green Wave, another activity under the Biodiversity Week for Schools, where they planted a belinjau tree in their garden.

The young ones were eager to help. When asked how they felt, one of them - Olivia Ho, six - said with a chuckle: "I am very happy because I never got to plant trees before!"

Read more!

Don't hurt or kill that snake - call Acres

Charmaine Ng Straits Times 5 Jun 17;

When Acres' deputy chief executive, Mr Kalai Vanan Balakrishnan, arrived in Buona Vista last week to remove a paradise tree snake from an office, he did not expect to see the 50cm-long snake taped to the carpet with industrial tape.

The adult snake also had a bleeding wound on its back as someone had tried to impale it.

"People are usually afraid of snakes and that's okay. But by doing this, you're really asking for trouble - the animal will feel scared and threatened, and things can go wrong," said Mr Kalai, 31, who was a wildlife rescuer for about four out of his seven years at Acres.

Acres does not keep numbers on cases of wildlife abuse but Mr Kalai, who still helps with rescues when manpower is short, has been noticing more of such incidents.

The non-profit organisation receives about 600 calls a month on its 24-hour wildlife rescue hotline, the only one of its kind in Singapore.

While those who call the hotline mostly leave the animals alone, some hurt the animals when they try to pin them down, he said.

This is particularly so for reptiles such as snakes, as well as birds. For every 10 calls related to snakes, Mr Kalai estimated that up to two are abused. Acres once responded to a snake-rescue call from a pre-school only to find a dead young spitting cobra. Someone had stacked at least three cardboard boxes on top of the reptile, which was 30cm to 40cm long, killing it.

Ms Anbarasi Boopal, who is also Acres' deputy chief executive, said such actions stem from inadequate education on the native wildlife.

"Singapore is creating a lot of greenery and it's never going to be just butterflies and flowers. There's going to be lizards, snakes."

Acres often gets calls about sightings of animals where a rescue is not necessary, she said. Last year, it received about 55 such calls a month, including sightings of small snakes on trees and monitor lizards in community gardens.

To curb this, Acres is ramping up efforts to educate the public on what to do when they encounter some of the common wildlife here.

Earlier this year, for example, it started working closely with and educating property managers of town councils, who are usually the first responders when the public encounter wildlife in a housing estate.

Acres said it hopes the campaign will help reduce misconceptions about Singapore's wildlife.

What to do if you spot a snake

Some of the common snakes native to Singapore include the reticulated python, paradise tree snake, common wolf snake, oriental whip snake, and the venomous equatorial spitting cobra.

While the paradise tree snake and oriental whip snake are mildly venomous, their bite is not dangerous to humans.

Snakes do not seek to attack people and are generally timid, said wildlife naturalist Serin Subaraj. They strike only if cornered or handled inappropriately.

"If you respect the distance, they will eventually move on," said Mr Serin, 22, co-founder of the Herpetological Society of Singapore. Herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles.

If you encounter a snake in trees, drains or green spaces, leave it alone as these are their natural habitats. When walking along waterways or trails, be mindful of your pathway.

Snakes may end up in urban areas when they are tracking their prey. In these areas, they may end up injured if they are hit by a vehicle.

If you encounter a snake under these circumstances, keep a distance and monitor the snake's movement.

You can call the Acres wildlife-rescue hotline on 9783-7782 and provide information on the snake, such as its length, thickness and colour or markings.

Read more!

Malaysia: Outrage over hunting photos on FB

SIM LEOI LEOI and SHARON LING The Star 5 Jun 17;

PETALING JAYA: Conservation groups have expressed concern over the recent flood of “sport hunting” pictures of many protected species on Facebook.

Among the pictures – believed to be taken in Sarawak recently – were hunters posing with a slaughtered sun bear, a dead clouded leopard, and pangolins readied for the cooking pot.

Also seen were several dead river terrapins, silver leaf monkeys, and what looked like wild boars or deer, other than a Facebook page advertising a baby leopard cat for sale.

Many of the species featured are listed as near threatened, vulnerable or critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Expressing concern, Danau Girang Field Centre director Dr Benoit Goossens said the animals are totally protected in Malaysia as they are highly endangered.

“This is going on and on and on ... How can these guys parade on social media without being arrested?” he said in a Facebook post, arguing that this is far from any form of “subsistence hunting”.

Dr Goossens, who is based in Sabah, said the pictures are unlikely to be linked to the recent Harvest Festival celebration in Sabah or Sarawak.

“I would say the festival has an influence when it comes to the sambar deer or the bearded pig, but not those highly endangered species. This is sport hunting – for fun!”

“These guys have no fear. They post pictures of their crime on social media,” he said, adding that it was also in contact with an expert on cybercrime to trace those involved.

He said he had posted the pictures on Facebook after receiving them on Monday

“Hopefully, with those images, the Wildlife Department of Sarawak can arrest them,” it said.

Dr Melvin Gumal, director of Sarawak-based Wildlife Conserva­tion Society Malaysia Programme, said the laws to protect endangered wildlife such as the Malayan sun bear must be upheld.

“If not, all the planning for sustaining diversity and the environment in the future, including TN50, will be futile,” he said.

When contacted, Assistant Minister of Environment Datuk Len Talif Salleh said he had asked both the Sarawak Forest Department and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation to investigate the pictures.

State Forest Department director Sapuan Ahmad said it would be writing to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to get information on the Facebook users and IP addresses, before lodging a police report.

Read more!