From 1 September 2021, Singapore will no longer have a legal domestic ivory trade. While this is an important step forward for protecting wildlife, stronger regulations are needed for the flourishing online market.
The ban means that the sale of elephant ivory and ivory products as well as the display of ivory products for sale, will be prohibited in Singapore. When a spokesman from the country’s National Parks Board made the announcement on the 12 August 2019, he said, the “nationwide ban highlights Singapore’s resolve in the fight against illegal trade in species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).”
International Ivory Law
Singapore is, together with 182 other states, a signatory to CITES, which banned the international commercial trade in ivory in 1989. However, while the Convention bans the international ivory trade, the domestic trade in ivory continues in many countries. As a result, up until 1 September 2021, if a trader in Singapore can show that the ivory items they are offering for sale have been imported to the country before the 1989 international ban or were acquired before the inclusion of the relevant elephant species in the CITES appendices, they remain legal to sell.
Singapore’s Ivory Trade
Singapore is a country of complex identities that draw on history, culture, and ethnicity. Its economic and cultural links to India, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia has inevitably seen the types of artistic traditions important in those countries being similarly important to Singapore. Like other South East Asian countries, symbols of wealth and status are important to Singaporeans, and as a result, ivory has long been one such symbol.
Despite the fact that Singapore has banned, in accordance with the CITES Convention, the commercial import and export of ivory since 1989, the selling and buying of ivory inside the country has still been allowed. However, as the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2018 controversial Ivory Lane Singapore “sting” showed, being legal does not mean an action is necessarily supported. Ivory Lane Singapore saw the WWF set up the fictitious brand in July 2018 in order to highlight the loopholes in Singapore’s wildlife laws. The brand’s website and social media pages appeared to show it selling accessories made of ivory. The positive from the story was that the fake company sparked outrage as soon as it went live, with Singaporeans accusing it of supporting elephants poaching. As the WWF continued the ruse stating that, “the ivory we use is completely legal in Singapore” because it is “vintage ivory”, social media users responded to air their disgust. One user posted that a “legal loophole does not make the ivory trade ethical.”
While the WWF campaign was controversial, their Singapore chief executive Elaine Tan told the media that the “overwhelming and strong response by people in Singapore towards Ivory Lane has made it very clear that people in Singapore have a zero tolerance toward illegal wildlife trade. We are due for clear and strong legislation to address ivory and illegal wildlife trade in Singapore.”
The elephant in the room – the online ivory trade
I have been researching and writing about the illegal ivory trade since 2016 and for me, the WWF Ivory Lane Singapore campaign highlights an issue that is of great concern. Singapore is the latest of a number of countries to take legislative action to close their domestic ivory markets. Others include, the United Kingdom, China, France, and the United States of America. Other states, including Australia, have announced plans to ban domestic trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn. In Australia, this followed the publishing of the 2019 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement report into the Australian domestic ivory trade.
However, there is a dark cloud overshadowing these efforts, and it enables sellers of illegal ivory to hide in plain sight – the online trade. The online illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is not just about elephant ivory. Go to the right web site and key in the right words and you will find everything from rhino horn to bear bile, tiger parts to pangolin scales. While the illegal wildlife trade as a whole is estimated to be worth US$20 billion a year, the illegal online trade represents a growing percentage of that. The growth in the use of the internet has brought the illegal wildlife trade to every laptop, every tablet, and every smart phone in the world, and potential buyers are not having to delve in to the Dark Web for their illicit purchases. eBay, Facebook, and Instagram have all come under scrutiny for hosting pages that sell illegal wildlife products.
While for most users, Facebook represents a benign hosting platform where friends can reunite and gossip can be exchanged, its social media dominance sees the company’s algorithms connect users with similar interests. When those interests are in trading illegal wildlife trade products, this turns from benign to horrific. Of course, most of the big online platforms have enacted policies to prevent their users trading illegal wildlife trade products. eBay famously introduced a ban on selling elephant ivory in 2009. Despite this, thousands of pieces of ivory are sold through eBay every year. How is this possible? Sellers, and we have to presume they do it consciously and knowingly, sell their illicit items using certain known euphemisms to avoid advertising items for sale as ivory (research has shown that these include “antique bone,” “Chinese bone,” and “antique cow bone”) together with excellent, detailed photographs which clearly show the ivory’s characteristic Schreger lines, which are evident in the cross-sections of ivory.
While we should all applaud the efforts of Singapore, along with those countries who have already or are in the process of doing similarly, in closing its domestic ivory markets, we also need to be aware of the threat posed to our world’s most iconic species by the online trade. Despite their bans and comforting words, online platforms appear to be making very little progress in preventing the use of their sites by sellers of illegal wildlife trade products. However, all is not lost. Research is going on now which aims to assist online platforms in combatting the IWT. From identifying the euphemisms being used to machine learning to find illegal ivory from photographs, researchers are committed to finding a way of stopping this heinous trade.
As Singapore closes the door on its own ivory markets, this writer is at least optimistic that an end to the ivory trade is in sight, but it will take more than unenforced policies and empty words. Just as Singapore saw the public repel WWF’s fake Ivory Lane Singapore site, we all need to be aware and vigilant about the online trade in ivory and other wildlife trade products. The internet giants of Facebook, eBay, and the like cannot fail to listen if enough of us call out illegal trading. We are, after all, their customers and their income source.
Caroline Cox is a senior lecturer in the University of Portsmouth’s Law School where she researches and teaches wildlife crime. She can be contacted through the University of Portsmouth or via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.