What happens to the ‘lost and found’ wild animals in Singapore?

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The bright Sunday morning is busy as usual for the volunteers at the ACRES-wildlife rescue center. There has been another wild animal rescued last night, found while crossing the streets of Singapore. A group of volunteers are busy preparing feed for the rescued animals while others are doing the routine checks in the quarantine.

This is usual for the ACRES volunteers as there are a large number of wild animals found injured and abandoned throughout Singapore. These animals land in Singapore from all parts of the world mostly as a result of the illegal wildlife trade. There is a huge demand for exotic animals as pets, in the meat industry and in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Animals like tortoises, turtles, iguanas and slow lorises are captured from the wild and smuggled to cater to this demand. Some of them are highly endangered.

According to a 2015 report by the wildlife monitoring network Traffic, Singapore ranks among the top 10 countries in the illegal wildlife trade globally. Despite stringent laws in place, there has been a staggering scale of illegal wildlife trade in Singapore.

Ms Anbarasi Boopal, the Deputy Chief Executive of ACRES Wildlife Rescue Centre (AWRC), noticed this after a personal encounter with an abandoned Indian star tortoise around an HDB area. She soon realized there was no proper channel to rehabilitate and repatriate the animals rescued from the illegal trade or even native animals found injured.

With the help of ACRES founder Louis Ang and others, she contributed in establishing the ACRES Wildlife Rescue Center. Their mission was to rehabilitate the rescued animals and then give them a proper second chance in the wild.

AWRC was established in 2006. It has been a long journey since then. Till date, ACRES houses around 190 wild animals including turtles, tortoises, Iguanas, Python and recently some birds. These animals are found abandoned in refuse bins or are run over by vehicles. They are first treated by veterinary doctors at the AWRC.

Ms Anbarasi says ‘Most animals we receive come in an awful state and need to be treated for shell repair or internal organ damage.’ They are then taken care by trained volunteers and the permanent staff at AWRC. The habitat, food habits, behavior and special requirements are studied and taken care of, for each rescued animal. Volunteers give a keen attention to the abnormal signs and symptoms like a runny nose, feeding habits or constipation.

Indian star tortoises gorging on their favorite breakfast

The other major task is to find the geographical origin of the animals so that they can be repatriated. This becomes especially crucial for the endangered species so that their numbers in the wild can be augmented.

Says Ms Anbarasi, ‘Finding where the animal came from can be time-consuming and expensive. It is done by following the trade trails, the study of physical features and or DNA testing. Once the geographical origin is identified, efforts are then made to contact those countries to send the animals back to their original habitats.’

The rescue centers in different countries liaise with each other to facilitate the repatriation process.

The tortoises and turtles are shipped in bags when they are young and small. They are exported in large numbers, sometimes in the range of thousands. Around 70% of them die due to suffocation/starvation during the transport.

Ms. Anbarasi thinks curiosity is the main reason for keeping turtles and tortoises as pets. It is usual for people to get bored of them after the initial excitement is doused as they live for really long. They also fall ill very often as they do not do very well in captivity. Eventually, they are abandoned.

Singapore was declared as the country of primary concern by the report prepared for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) conference. Apart from the trade destination, Singapore is also used as a major trans-shipment point. Wild animals or animal parts are smuggled to countries like China or Vietnam.

ACRES have been doing the daunting task of making sure the animals are well taken care of and sent to their original habitats. They have also been trying to bring about policy level changes as that is where permanent changes are possible. To aid this process, they have a humane education program and camps to create awareness. A dialogue with the people on the other side of the fence is essential.

Apart from applauding the enormous task done by the volunteers at ACRES, we must spread the word and partake in the dialogue!