By Jeanette Tan
The next time you pull out your wallet to pay for a bottle of cooling water, antelope drink or tea, you may want to look a little closer at its ingredients list — because it might contain the horn of an endangered animal.
What is written as “Cornu Saiga Tataricae”, and sometimes misspelled as “Cornu Saigae Tatariae”, refers to the Saiga antelope horn. The phrase refers to the scientific terms for it, with the word “cornu” being the scientific name for horn.
Despite the little attention the Saiga antelope has received from the eyes of the public, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) believes Singapore is the main hub of Saiga horn trade in Southeast Asia.
According to figures from the WWF, its global population has seen a drastic fall between the early 1990s, when they numbered in excess of 1 million, to current estimates of about 50,000. Its Mongolian sub-species faces particular risk, with a population estimated by WWF to be 750.
How this happened could in part be explained by a 1993 international ban on trade in rhinoceros horns, which resulted in the use of Saiga horns as a substitute, according to a 2012 Asian Scientist report. The Saiga antelope is currently classified as “Critically Endangered” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is also a WWF Priority species.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES), however, which Singapore’s Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) takes its cue from, the Saiga is listed under Appendix II. This means that traders require only a CITES permit to trade its parts — this according to the Singapore branch of Project WILD, which launched a campaign against the purchase of Saiga horn and its associated products in 2012.
The AVA has confirmed this, noting that "domestic sale of Saiga horn products, such as horn shavings and cooling drinks, is permitted in Singapore if they are derived from legally imported or acquired horns and properly labelled”.
Saiga horns come from male Saigas, which die after being hunted in the wild and mutilated for their horns by poachers. This in turn, of course, adversely affects their populations.
So what makes WWF think Singapore is a bustling Saiga horn hub? A 2006 survey by WWF’s sister organisation TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) of 51 traditional Chinese medicine shops here found Saiga horns or their products sold at 49 of them, and also counted more than 4,000 horns sold over their counters.
When consumers of Antelope drink or tea were asked, most said they believed the Saiga was a farmed animal, or that their horns could grow back after being removed, said the WWF.
When contacted, a spokesperson for the AVA told Yahoo Singapore that illegally-traded Saiga antelope parts have not been seized in Singapore in the past four years till present.
The spokesperson said AVA officers do, however, conduct regular and unannounced inspections on retail outlets island wide for illegal wildlife products not restricted to Saiga horns or their products.
“AVA also inspects and monitors traders who have pre-Convention stocks of Saiga antelope horns to verify their stock records,” she added, noting further that if there are any instances of alleged illegal wildlife trade, AVA will investigate them once alerted to them.
The WWF says it is taking action by going to the heart of the issue — by sending wildlife rangers into the forests to stop poachers from killing endangered animals illegally. They say that every four days, one is killed in the line of duty, however, and are now seeking help from the public to support the rangers’ efforts.
Enter Earth Hour Singapore’s “Stop the Killing!” crowdfunding project: an effort to raise money for a host of things to support the rangers — from food to a motorcycle for better patrolling, as well as insurance for them in the event of death or severe injury, to support them and their families.
One of the key threats rangers face is being shot and killed by armed poachers — when this happens, many of them lack adequate insurance cover for the families and loved ones they leave behind.
More funding is needed to pay for about 300 rangers to receive combat training and wildlife gear to better-protect themselves when they come face-to-face with illegal hunters.
Certain amounts donated ($30, $50, and $300) to the project will also go directly toward the monitoring of Saiga horn trade, as well as into exposing and suppressing trafficking attempts, said the WWF.