Singapore’s Ivory Ban
At long last, Singapore has stepped up its conservation game! This year, on World Elephant Day (12th August), the National Parks Board (NParks) announced a ban on the domestic trade of elephant ivory, effective from 21st September, 2021 onwards . Selling ivory or ivory-made goods would be prohibited, as well as the open display of such products for sale. We will be joining other countries such as the United States, China and Taiwan in fighting against illegal ivory trafficking. In fact, our ban could turn out to be the most stringent, according to WWF . It’s great to hear that our government’s stance on this issue is far from half-hearted!
Wildlife Trafficking in Singapore
Did you know, illegal wildlife trade is actually prevalent in Singapore? Given our elevated global standing and strategic location, Singapore is a popular pitstop for illegal transactions on their way to their intended destinations . The large hauls of elephant ivory and pangolin scales seized earlier this year are proof of this .
The Why in Illegal Wildlife Trade: Elephant Parts
While it’s heartening to see Singapore’s determination in cracking down on wildlife trafficking, the problem needs to be targeted at its root – demand. Live animals and dead animal parts alike are heavily trafficked all around the world. What exactly is driving this? Well, unfounded beliefs on the properties of animal parts and the cultural symbolism of the ivory are just some factors.
There are beliefs in medicinal properties of animal parts, such as having the miraculous ability to cure various health ailments. Yet, these beliefs aren’t scientifically backed and so are merely myths. To me, this makes the whole issue more tragic. Imagine having your teeth brutally pulled out just because people think it’s a panacea to their illnesses, and your kin is slowly dying out due to this misplaced belief! In Myanmar, more elephants are being poached as demands for their body parts increase . Nothing is spared – their trunks, feet, skin, and even penis are used in traditional medicine. Their hide, for instance, is thought to cure eczema.
Moving on to the next point, ivory is highly valued, partly due to its rarity, and is carved into products ranging from religious figurines to even cutlery . Owning anything ivory says something about one’s status in some countries like China, which means that elephants are being sacrificed to indulge people who wish to flaunt their social standing and affluence… where are the ethical implications of this ? Aside from being a social symbol, some people desire ivory for spiritual fulfilment .
They perceive accessories made out of ivory such as bangles and amulets as capable of warding off bad luck and malicious supernatural beings. This is part of the reason for the pervasive ivory trade in countries such as Thailand. There, people donate to gods and receive amulets in return, which are believed to bring good fortune and protect wearers from harm . They are also readily sold in public. Amulets can be made of several types of materials, including – you guessed it – ivory ! It seems ironic to me that in a country where elephants are the national animal, people act in ways that contribute to the devastation of the very animal they revere.
More Action Needed
International trade in ivory has been prohibited since 1990, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) placed the African elephant under Appendix I – identifying the species as being threatened with extinction, and thus prohibiting trade in elephant parts (excluding exceptional circumstances) . While this has been beneficial for elephant populations, poaching is still pervasive, and domestic markets on ivory should be shut down to ensure fuller protection of elephants. Some countries have yet to outlaw the ivory trade, such as Japan . These legal markets thus undermine efforts against elephant poaching as they continue to generate demand and promote illegal ivory trafficking.
Additionally, stricter enforcement is needed in countries where domestic ivory trade has been prohibited, for the ban to be truly effective. Despite the ban on the sale of ivory in China implemented at the end of 2017, Chinese demand for ivory is still going strong . Those who are adamant in acquiring ivory products can circumvent the ban by flying to other countries to do so, such as Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where the ivory sale is legal or the enforcement of ivory bans is lacking .
Why Conserve Elephants
Great numbers of elephants are hunted down each year for their tusks . All species of elephants – African bush, African forest and Asian – are not spared. Some people may wonder, why should we protect them? Well, some arguments for protecting biodiversity include conserving nature for its intrinsic value – the existence of elephants is in itself valuable and they are hence worth conserving; and the importance of the role of elephants in the ecosystem.
Elephants are keystone species – such species are critical for the maintenance of ecosystems . They can be considered ecosystem engineers, affecting the physical landscape or characteristics of their habitat. For example, elephants are crucial in seed dispersal – eating the seeds of plants, they end up ‘planting’ new vegetation by excreting the seeds as they move from place to place . They are capable of using their tusks to dig for water as well, providing other animals with a source of water . Without their presence, entire ecosystems are greatly affected.
Let’s have a closer look at forest elephants! Smaller in size and less prominent compared to their counterparts, their population is declining. It has been speculated that more than half the population were killed between 2002 and 2011, largely fuelled by ivory demand (and habitat destruction) . This is worrying, given their ecological importance. Forest elephants are crucial for the growth of new trees – they ingest the seeds of trees and excrete them, prompting germination (their dung serve as fertilisers!) . Furthermore, recent research has revealed that the feeding habits of forest elephants could enhance forests’ ability to act as carbon sinks . Their preference for eating young trees and “early succession” plants (the first vegetations to grow in cleared or open forest areas) has been found to promote the growth and proliferation of larger woody trees, which are capable of storing more carbon . Given the current climate crisis in which the increase in global carbon emissions is showing no signs of stopping, we really need our forests at their best carbon-storing capacity! This underlines the importance of conserving forest elephants as part of efforts against climate change.
Cracking Down on Ivory… How Far Must We Go?
Imagine needing to list the Woolly mammoth as a protected species to protect existing elephants? …What? If you found this absurd, you’re not alone, because I felt the same! This was suggested by Israel at the CITES conference this year, in which all 183 countries onboard the agreement meet to discuss details . As ridiculous as this sounds, there’s some logic underlying it. As global temperatures rise, permafrost melts (such as in Siberia) revealing mammoth tusks that have long been preserved under ice . Given how mammoth ivory trade is largely unrecorded and unregulated, there is a concern that illegal elephant ivory is being passed off as mammoth ivory (the two are not easily discernible), thus highlighting a loophole in the system . To have to label an extinct species as ‘endangered’ to better safeguard their existing kin… it truly shows how difficult it is to comprehensively deal with the illegal wildlife trade.
There you have it! I hope you learnt something new from this post. Thanks for reading!
Written by: Vera