November 2019 | Volume 21 No. 1
Hong Kong’s Role in Wildlife Trafficking Exposed
Hong Kong’s illegal wildlife trade is increasing in volume, underestimated in value and contributing significantly to the global extinction crisis. These are the conclusions of a recent study co-authored by Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group (HKWTWG) and Ms Amanda Whitfort, Associate Professor in HKU’s Faculty of Law.
Entitled Trading in Extinction: The Dark Side of Hong Kong’s Wildlife Trade, the study condemns Hong Kong for playing a central role in such trafficking and reveals the extent of the problem, how this illicit industry works and how the government is failing in its duty to end organised trafficking and thereby endangering rare species further.
The crux of the problem, said Ms Whitfort, is that policing of the animal smuggling industry is under-resourced. “Wildlife trafficking is now regarded as the fourth most lucrative black market in the world, after drugs, people and arms, with the annual sums involved globally as high as US$23 billion (HK$179 billion),” she said.
Hong Kong’s geographic location, free trade policy and logistical convenience as a gateway to China have meant it has become a hub for illegal wildlife trade, supplying growing demand for wildlife and wildlife products across Asia and particularly in China.
“Yet, under Hong Kong law, wildlife smuggling is not included in the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance [OSCO],” said Ms Whitfort, ”which means the authorities do not have the power to prosecute effectively the syndicates and networks that take advantage of Hong Kong’s position as a major trading port.”
It is perhaps no surprise then that the study found the situation is worsening. Between 2013 and 2017, customs officers seized over HK$560 million in trafficked wildlife, including over 20 metric tonnes of ivory, 43 metric tonnes of pangolin (scales and carcasses), 1,366 metric tonnes of illegal wood and 27 metric tonnes of other endangered species (mainly reptiles).
“Those quantities are conservatively estimated to equate to the deaths of over 3,000 elephants, 51 rhinos and 65,000 pangolins,” said Ms Whitfort. “Depending which pangolin species are targeted, (the species vary greatly in maximum size), between 345 and 2,777 animals must be killed to produce one tonne of scales.”
Pangolin has become the most trafficked mammal in the world, with around 300 being poached every day. All eight species of pangolin (four Asian and four African) were listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2016.
Two founding members of the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group – Professor Yvonne Sadovy (left) and Ms Amanda Whitfort (right).
Low risk, high profit
The low risk of detection and high profit have made the trafficking industry attractive to transnational criminal syndicates who oversee supply to growing markets in Asia. The study cites one case where a person was found guilty of smuggling three pieces of rhino horn into Hong Kong in a chocolate box. The horn was worth more than HK$500,000, yet the man was given a sentence of just four weeks in prison.
“This reflects the increasing profit to be made from wildlife smuggling,” said Ms Whitfort. “A vicious circle has been created. As endangered species become rarer, their value on the black market rises, fuelling poaching and driving species closer to extinction. Gram for gram, rhino horn is now more valuable than platinum, and certainly easier to smuggle than drugs, which explains why organised crime is involved.”
The contraband is smuggled into Hong Kong via multiple points, with some coming through Hong Kong International Airport – often brought in by ‘mules’ paid by the syndicates – or hidden inside parcels and air consignments. The majority though arrive by sea, smuggled aboard containers.
Trading in Extinction makes the case that if wildlife crime is to be addressed properly, Hong Kong, as a strategic hub, urgently needs to implement an enhanced enforcement strategy.
At present, the study says, Hong Kong courts provide little deterrent. Despite the high value of the trafficked goods, the ecological, social and financial impact of the crimes, the high cost of after care and the suffering of the animals, of 165 prosecutions reviewed between 2013 and 2017, penalties ranged from fines of HK$1,500 to HK$180,000 and from 160 hours community service to eight months in custody – much lower than the maximum penalties permitted.
The government has made some moves in the right direction – announcing in 2016 that it would take legislative steps to ban Hong Kong’s domestic ivory trade and in 2018 introducing heavier penalties for the smuggling and illegal trade of endangered species. However, as the study says, this is unlikely to be enough.
Ms Whitfort said: “The legislature must go further if Hong Kong is to effectively deter the transnational criminal networks from funding extinction. Wildlife crime is a high profit, organised crime activity. The Hong Kong Government has a responsibility to the international community to counter the city’s role as a key transit point for illegal trade in endangered species by including wildlife crimes in our Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance.”
Photographers against wildlife crime™ are an international group of award winning photographers who have joined forces to use their powerful and iconic images to help bring an end to the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetime. The group collaborates with writers and journalists worldwide. For details, please visit: www.photographersagainstwildlifecrime.com
Gram for gram, rhino horn is now more valuable than platinum, and certainly easier to smuggle than drugs, which explains why organised crime is involved.
MS AMANDA WHITFORT