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"Singapore got wildlife meh?"

"Singapore got wildlife meh?"

A brief history of the Wild Animals and Birds Act — and two false(?) dichotomies

*(Quote from David “Dead Bird” Tan’s video: (https://youtu.be/7lQ0_fJ_Mv0))
** (Featured image by Lip Kee, used under CC BY-SA 2.0: (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Otter_-_pair_relaxing_-_Flickr_-_Lip_Kee.jpg))

Eric Bea

LLB Year 3

National University of Singapore

(This article is based on a presentation the author did as part of class participation in the module LL4021V/LL5021V/LL6021V/LX5103 Environmental Law.)

It was announced earlier this month that there would be a Private Member’s Bill to amend the Wild Animals and Birds Act (WABA) (Cap 351). WABA was enacted in 1965, and has only been amended twice (in 1991 and 2000). Together with Singaporeans’ relative lack of awareness of wildlife (as reflected in the opening quote), it is probably not too surprising that WABA tends to receive little attention. Yet, as times have changed, our understanding of wildlife conservation has changed in lockstep as well. Thus, it is timely that amendments to WABA are put up. However, before the amendments are made public, it is worthwhile understanding the history of wildlife conservation law in Singapore, as well as the major points of contention which have been raised in the intervening years.

The common law

As Singapore was previously a British colony, we received the English common law via the 1826 Second Charter of Justice. This continues today through the application of the Application of English Law Act (AELA) (Cap 7A). It is from the common law which we derive the bifurcation of “domestic” and “wild” animals.

The common law defined “domestic” animals as those which were “by habit or training live with or in the service of man”, and therefore could be the “property” of a person, if the domestic animal escaped, others were obliged to return it to the owner.

In contrast, a “wild” animal was simply the opposite of “domestic” and ownership was gained by capturing a wild animal. If the wild animal escaped, it ceased to be owned by its (former) captor.  However, this delineation frequently proved to be unhelpful — resulting in “wild” circus elephants (Filburn v People’s Palace and Aquarium Co. Ltd (1890), 23 QBD 258) and “domestic” zoo camels. (McQuakers v Goddard, [1940] 1 KB 687)

Preceding legislation

The first wildlife conservation legislation were the Wild Birds Ordinance 1884 (WBO 1884), and its replacement, the Wild Animals and Birds Protection Ordinance 1904 (WABPO 1904). To some extent, the WBO 1884 and WABPO 1904 entrenched the common law domestic/wild divide. A quick comparison is provided below:

WBO 1884WABPO 1904
ApplicationWild birds onlyWild animals and birds
Mode of protectionProhibited the unlicensed killing, wounding, or taking of any wild bird other than the 33 species that were listed in the Schedule to the OrdinanceWBO Schedule of list of birds retained.


Unlicensed killing, wounding, or taking of wild animals also outlawed.


Governor was granted powers to announce “close times” and “breeding seasons” (including a “permanent close time” creating an absolute ban on hunting) for other animals.

Penalty for unlawful killing$2/bird, or up to 14 days’ imprisonmentPenalty changed to $25 overall maximum fine (regardless of number of individual animals or birds killed)
Penalty for abetment$50/bird, or up to a month’s imprisonmentAbolished
PresumptionsRebuttable presumption of illegality for possession of wild bird (or its skin or plumage)Abolished
Statutory defencesNot availableDefence of “damaging or destroying crops” introduced for killing/taking birds

WABA 1965

The purpose of WABA, when it was debated in Parliament, was twofold: firstly, it was for the protection and preservation of wildlife in Singapore, and secondly, to regulate the import, transshipment, and export of wild animals and birds.

The Minister pointed to Singapore’s strategic situation in the highly biodiverse region of South-East Asia; and noted that a large number of captured wild animals and birds were being channelled through Singapore for export to distant destinations like Europe and America, causing many wild birds and animals in this region, such as the Orang Utan and the Bird of Paradise, to come close extinction due to indiscriminate hunting and killing.

A comparison of WABPO 1904 and WABA:

ApplicationBirds onlyAnimals and birds
Mode of protectionUnlicensed killing, wounding, or taking of wild animals and birds outlawed.


Other than the unlicensed killing, wounding, or taking of wild animals and birds; the exposing, exporting, importing, and offering for sale wild animal or bird was also made an offence.


Both offences were made strict liability offences, which meant that unlike a typical criminal offence, there was no need to prove intention to commit the offence, above and over evidence of the offence being carried out

Penalty for unlawful killing$25 overall maximum$1000 overall maximum + forfeiture of illegal specimen
Statutory defencesNot availableDefence of “damaging or destroying crops” introduced for killing/taking birds
OthersInformer’s reward established. The court could reward informer with a part of the fine levied on the offender.

Subsidiary legislation

WABA was then followed up by the Wild Animals and Birds (Bird Sanctuaries) Order 1970 (BSO), and the Wild Animals (Licensing) Order 1975 (WALO).

Wild Animals and Birds (Bird Sanctuaries) Order 1970

The BSO created six Bird Sanctuaries where the killing or taking, or netting or snaring of wild birds are absolutely prohibited, notwithstanding any licence to the contrary. These Bird Sanctuaries are:

  • Botanic Gardens, including the NUS Bukit Timah Campus
  • Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
  • Central Catchment Nature Reserve (Macritchie, Peirce, Seletar reservoirs)
  • Fort Canning Park
  • Istana Grounds
  • Sentosa

Wild Animals (Licensing) Order 1975

WALO, as its name suggests, only applies to wild animals. While section 3(f) of WABA allows the Minister to make orders for the “control, registration and licensing of any species of wild animal or bird”, there has only been WALO for wild animals thus far. Thus, there is no licensing scheme for wild birds at present.

Which brings us to the first of two possible false dichotomies with WABA 1965 which have been raised by environmentalists.

False dichotomy 1? Of “wild animals” and “wild birds”

In section 2 of WABA, “wild animals and birds” are defined as “all species of animals and birds of a wild nature, but does not include domestic dogs and cats, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, domestic pigs, poultry and ducks.” So, what is an “animal”?


So, no, WABA does not apply to either of them. (Source: Google)

Helpfully, section 2(1) of the Interpretation Act defines “animal” —  ’”animal” includes bird, reptile, fish and every kind of vertebrate animal and the young thereof’. However, the inclusion of “bird” in the Interpretation Act definition seems to overlap with WABA’s.

Nonetheless, this raises the question of whether invertebrates are protected by WABA — the irresistible inference is that it does not.


These are not “wild animals” either, according to WABA. (Source: Google)

Thus, there is a line of argument that considers this definition too narrowly-constructed. The Parks and Trees Act (Cap 216) gives credence to this argument with its all-encompassing definition of “animal”: “any mammal (other than man), bird, reptile, amphibian, fish (including shellfish), insect or any other living creature, vertebrate or invertebrate, and includes any egg or young thereof”.

False dichotomy 2? Of “domestic animals” and “wild animals”

This brings us back to the “original sin” — the domestic/wild divide. Just as WABA’s definition of “wild animal” was too narrow in failing to account for invertebrates, it is also too broad in not excluding some animals capable of being domesticated — this is particularly obvious when it comes to rabbits. WABA’s assumption is that rabbits cannot be domesticated. (Looking at the abandoned pet rabbits on the SPCA website, the SPCA probably differs, and rightfully so.)

In any case, the line between “domestic” and “wild” is frequently blurred in Singapore — there are formerly domesticated dogs which are abandoned and revert to ferae naturae; and there are also formerly stray cats which have been adopted from HDB void decks and become domesticated in all but name. The Animals and Birds Act partially recognises this fact by making Part IV (relating to animal welfare and prevention of cruelty to animals) applicable to both “wild” and “tame” animals (section 41). It is thus submitted that maybe, the true differentiation should be between “licensable” animals which are fit to be kept as livestock or pets, and “non-licensable” animals which, for safety and welfare reasons, are best left in the wild. The Minister should make the determination by way of subsidiary legislation as to what animals can and cannot be kept as livestock or pets.


It is high time WABA was revisited, and this is a good start. It would be remiss, however, if the broader context of WABA was not considered — that of the habitats that these wild animals live in and are inseparable from, as well. The Parks and Trees Act should also be strengthened, and the repeated calls for mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments in and around our green and blue spaces should also be heeded.


Melissa Tan and Hugh Tan, The Laws Relating to Biodiversity in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore: Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore, 2013).

Parliamentary Debates Singapore: Official Report, vol 23 at col 832 (16 June 1965) (Wild Animals and Birds Bill) (Mr Lim Kim San (Minister for National Development)).

Parliamentary Debates Singapore: Official Report, vol 79 at col 502 (25 January 2005) (Parks and Trees Bill) (Dr Geh Min).

Parliamentary Debates Singapore: Official Report, vol 94 at page 34 (7 February 2017) (Parks and Trees (Amendment) Bill) (Mr Louis Ng).