A record 8.8 tonnes of elephant ivory were seized from three containers on Sunday night, in what is believed to be one of the largest hauls seen worldwide in recent years.
The latest shipment of ivory, estimated to have come from nearly 300 African elephants, is estimated to be worth $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.
Sunday’s haul was the biggest seizure of elephant ivory that the Republic has seen. In 2002, the Singapore authorities seized six tonnes of smuggled African elephant tusks and ivory worth about $1.5 million that were bound for Japan.
Apart from the ivory seized, 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales, estimated to be worth about $48.6 million, were also confiscated in the operation on Sunday at Pasir Panjang Export Inspection Station.
It was the third major shipment of pangolin scales to be intercepted this year, said the National Parks Board, Singapore Customs and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority in a joint statement.
The containers containing the pangolin scales and ivory were en route from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Vietnam and were declared as containing “timber”.
In April, two large shipments of pangolin scales – both bound for Vietnam from Nigeria – were intercepted by the authorities within a week of each other. They were found to contain 12.9 tonnes and 12.7 tonnes of scales, respectively.
The shipments were believed to be two of the largest single hauls seen worldwide in recent years.
Estimated number of African elephants killed for the 8.8 tonnes of ivory seized.
Estimated number of giant pangolins believed to have been killed for the scales confiscated on Sunday.
The containers, which were en route from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Vietnam, were declared as containing “timber” but were found to contain pangolin scales and elephant ivory.
The latest seizure brings the total amount of pangolin scales Singapore has intercepted this year to 37.5 tonnes.
An estimated 2,000 giant pangolins (Smutsia gigantea) are believed to have been killed for the scales confiscated in Sunday’s haul.
Pangolin scales, made of keratin, are in demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine despite there being no proven medicinal benefit from their use.
Pangolin meat is also considered a delicacy in some cultures.
The agencies said China’s General Administration of Customs had shared information that enabled the successful seizure.
“The Singapore Government adopts a zero-tolerance stance on the use of Singapore as a conduit to smuggle endangered species and their parts and derivatives. Our agencies will continue to collaborate and maintain vigilance to tackle the illegal wildlife trade,” the agencies said in the statement.
Experts who spoke to The Straits Times about the earlier seizures had said the large quantities of pangolins involved in the shipments pointed strongly to the involvement of criminal networks.
Ms Bridget Connelly, an analyst who conducts research on wildlife trafficking for C4ADS, a non-profit organisation based in the United States, said only a trafficker with a significant source of funds can bear the financial risk of consolidating the animal parts from poachers and middlemen, and exporting them.
She added: “Wildlife trafficking is most efficient and cost-effective when it is done at scale. The poacher isn’t going to have the means to ship the product to Asia, nor is the middleman, who may collect from several poachers.”
She pointed out that a key problem in stopping the illegal wildlife trade is the lack of detection or, when detection occurs, the lack of sufficient penalties to deter traffickers.
“Often, even if wildlife traders are arrested, they will get minimal sentences or relatively small fines. Because of the high reward and low risk, the wildlife trade has continued to flourish,” she said.
Singapore is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Under Singapore’s Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act, the penalty for the illegal import, export and re-export of wildlife is a fine of up to $500,000 and may include two years’ imprisonment.
Earlier this month, an international operation involving the police from 109 countries saw thousands of wild animals seized in a crackdown on illegal wildlife trade.
Operation Thunderball, based in Singapore, was the third such Interpol mission in recent years aimed at transnational crime networks.
The agencies said the animal parts from Sunday’s seizure will be destroyed to prevent them from re-entering the market.