Singapore launches first Centre for Wildlife Forensics to combat illegal wildlife trade, including timber

Singapore launched its first Centre for Wildlife Forensics (CWF) on 11 August 2020. The CWF will strengthen the National Parks Board Singapore’s (NParks) detection and diagnostic capabilities by drawing upon expertise across NParks to identify and analyse specimens involved in the illegal wildlife trade. This will strengthen Singapore’s role in the international fight against the illegal trade in wildlife.

Collaborations between NParks, Singapore Customs, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, as well as our international counterparts, have enabled Singapore to seize record amounts of pangolin scales and elephant ivory that were en route to other countries in the region.

Currently, Singapore identifies seized items through morphological and molecular analysis. Moving forward, the Centre for Wildlife Forensics can utilise other DNA analysis methods such as next generation sequencing, and chemical methods such as mass spectrometry and isotope analysis to provide greater resolution and deeper insights on the seized items, such as the origin of the population of species that have been poached. Such information can help international organisations and source countries to undertake further investigation and enforcement action against poachers and smugglers. These capabilities will also enable the analysis of seizures throughout the globe to identify potential linkages and syndicates through collaborations with international experts and organisations.

With such capabilities, the Centre will support Singapore’s efforts as a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), augment our enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and contribute to the global fight against illegal wildlife trade. CITES ensures that the international trade in wildlife is carried out in a way that does not threaten their survival.

As Singapore moves towards becoming a City in Nature, the Centre for Wildlife Forensics will also strengthen Singapore’s commitment to conserve biodiversity in our nature reserves and parks.

Fauna identification and analysis

The Centre for Wildlife Forensics will tap on the Centre for Animal and Veterinary Sciences to build its capabilities in DNA techniques and other types of diagnostics such as mass spectrometry. This not only enables NParks to seize wildlife and their parts that are traded illegally; it also helps NParks carry out wildlife forensics to attain information that is important to tackle the problem of illegal wildlife trade globally. Molecular diagnostics will help NParks build upon existing reference libraries, databases and identification keys for commonly traded wildlife species to enable us to take swifter enforcement action.

The CWF will focus on wildlife most severely impacted by the illegal wildlife trade – elephants, rhinoceros, pangolins, sharks and rays, and songbirds.

The Centre will also be able to study the population genetics of elephants and pangolins based on their specimens. Parentage testing will also be conducted to verify the captive-bred status of ornamental songbirds. Using isotope analysis, their geographical origin can also be determined. Information gathered from these studies will be shared with source countries for them to trace and verify their place of origin. This will enable international organisations like INTERPOL, local enforcement agencies, and conservation organisations to focus their efforts on regions where poaching is rife.

Flora identification and analysis

The Singapore Botanic Gardens Herbarium has an extensive reference library of plants from around the world. Tapping on the expertise of the Herbarium, as well as its links with institutions throughout the world, the Centre for Wildlife Forensics will be able to identify and extract the DNA from plants in order to accurately identify them. The identification of plants will enable NParks to determine the species being traded and help accurately identify possible endangered species that are illegally traded so that enforcement actions can be taken to ensure the long-term conservation of such species.

The Singapore Xylarium – a collection of authenticated timber specimens – will also be established to complement the extensive reference library of plants. The Xylarium will comprise a collection of literature on timber identification, timber samples, cross sections of timber samples, and a timber DNA library. This will enable researchers to compare and identify timber specimens through their unique characteristics and genetics. The in-house identification of timber species using a combination of wood morphology, genetics and chemical analysis will enable Singapore to investigate and prosecute the illegal trade in CITES timber more efficiently. NParks will also be able to share information about the species with international organisations, or the source countries where the illegal timber originates from. The Xylarium will be housed within the Singapore Botanic Gardens Seed Bank, which also has a suite of botanical equipment that will enable the Centre for Wildlife Forensics to conduct analyses and species identification.

The launch of a Centre for Wildlife Forensics in Singapore represents a major step towards strengthening the country’s knowledge and capabilities,” said Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary General. “The Centre will establish a dedicated capacity building entity for enforcement officers, providing training for the complex task of detecting illegal wildlife and wildlife products. This is exactly the kind of response that is needed to tackle illegal wildlife crime. Forensic applications must fully be used to combat illegal trade in wildlife.”