The real story behind WWF Singapore's fake ivory accessory brand Ivory Lane
WWF Singapore's latest campaign against ivory trading saw them telling the nation an earnest lie. Here's why the truth about it matters
When we first heard about Ivory Lane, we were speechless. Elephant ivory accessories sold in Singapore? Surely that can't be real.
Turns out, it's not. Or rather Ivory Lane, the fake online store launched by WWF Singapore in hopes of raising awareness of elephant ivory trading, is not. See here's the thing: Actual ivory trading in Singapore, is but a hoax. Confirmed by WWF, "The global trade in elephant ivory claims one African elephant every 25 minutes, but remains legal for sale in Singapore under certain conditions." Those conditions are simple — as long as shop owners claim the ivory sold under their roofs entered the market before 1990, the sale is legal. Although the poaching of elephants for ivory is illegal worldwide and ivory trade in Singapore has been illegal for more than two decades, the selling of ivory obtained prior to 1990 is by the books. And because recently poached ivory could easily masquerade as vintage ivory (there is no scientific way of dating an ivory accurately) the poaching of elephants continues to thrive in the black market.
Lest you think this is not a local issue, ivory can be found all over old school brick-and-mortar shops in Singapore, predominantly in the Chinatown area; a quick two-day investigation by WWF representatives revealed as many as 40 in operation, with more businesses still to be unearthed. Ivory accessory listings are also spotted on numerous Singapore-based certified online shopping.
African elephant ivory doesn't have a complicated route to Singapore. We found out from WWF Singapore that Singapore is one of the largest transhipment ports in the world amongst neighbouring countries, and a major transit hub in the illegal wildlife trade in Asia. Yet, we have comparably low maximum penalties for wildlife crime which is growing at two to three times the speed of the economy. Since 2000, Singapore has seized 13 tonnes or 13,000 kilograms of ivory.
How best to shed light on this nebulous horror? WWF Singapore decided to take a risk, one that unfortunately will not pay off in the way it hoped it would. To demonstrate the ease of setting up a 100% legal ivory commerce platform, the organization went digital to rile the people, ignite outrage with Ivory Lane. Engaging designers, models, photographers and webmasters with their own dime, the website went live on August 1 with a faux offering of ivory-made fashion accessories (the items in the campaign image above were plastic) in the guise of nature-appreciation and heritage-building. Within a week, it blew up. The Ivory Lane site and social platforms performed as intended as well-meaning millennials and keyboard warriors slammed Ivory Lane, rightly sharing their disgust and hurling insults at the enterprise.
Explaining the elaborate campaign, Chief Executive Officer of WWF Singapore Elaine Tan said, "It is not easy to understand wildlife laws and what is legal and not, a reality that is often misused by illegal traders. The general uncertainty leads to illicit wildlife trade hiding in plain sight. We set up the online shop, Ivory Lane, on the same legal premise that the real ivory traders use to operate in Singapore."
Alas, the public's indignation, which WWF Singapore hoped would have time to snowball to the point of governmental action banning any and all forms of ivory domestically, soon turned rogue. Despite its original timeline including plans to unveil the truth behind Ivory Lane on August 30, a certain newspaper (hint: The largest one in Singapore) threatened to expose it pre-maturely (and it eventually did, on August 7, just six days after the campaign went live) when it caught wind of the campaign, rendering the remaining activations WWF Singapore had in line moot. For example, Buro Singapore, one of five official media partners engaged by the organisation to raise awareness of ivory activity in Singapore, was on schedule to launch an "interview with Ivy Chng", the phoney founder of Ivory Lane, centred on building awareness, and educating the public about the controversial loopholes within the ivory trade that would allow Ivory Lane to exist as a legitimate ivory merchandiser.
To reclaim the narrative, WWF Singapore released a statement yesterday, taking responsibility for Ivory Lane and further explaining its cause. According to the NGO, the Ivory Lane online shop reached 250,000 people and garnered 65,000 reactions within six days, and sparked off a heated public debate on wildlife trade, national legislation and enforcement in Singapore. "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," said Tan. "We are due for clear and strong legislation to address ivory and illegal wildlife trade in Singapore."