In 2019, Hong Kong customs authorities inspected a cargo ship bound for Vietnam. Hidden beneath slabs of frozen meat were 8.3 metric tons of illegal scales from about 13,800 pangolins, and more than 2.1 metric tons of tusks from about 200 elephants, with a combined value of about $8 million. A new bill is looking to bring an end to Hong Kong being a hub for illegal wildlife trade.
“The levels are high, they’ve remained high despite the pandemic,” Le Clue said. “In fact, the last decades have been at the highest [levels] except for one year. So there’s a continuing trend of increasing seizures.”
This year, there have already been two notable wildlife seizures, including 1 ton of CITES-regulated shark fins and more than 1,200 tons of illegally trafficked rosewood — the largest wood seizure since 2015.
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‘The Tides are Not Stopping’
When prosecution follows a seizure in Hong Kong, the people who usually end up behind bars are the so-called mules, the people moving the illegal products across borders, according to the report. In contrast, the criminal masterminds behind these offenses tend to remain free.
“We’ve come to the view that this must be because we’re targeting the wrong people,” Amanda Whitfort, a barrister and law professor at the University of Hong Kong who drafted the new wildlife bill, told Mongabay in an interview. “We’re targeting the mules, the people that are replaceable, the people who’ve got 50 kilos … of rhino horn or scales of pangolins in their luggage. But we’re not getting the criminal syndicates that are behind this very lucrative transnational crime.”
An example of this is the 2018 conviction of a woman identified in the report as a “part-time salesperson and housewife,” who allowed smugglers to use her personal address to process an illegal shipment of 29 metric tons of Honduras rosewood. The woman was ultimately sentenced to three months in prison, but as the report suggests, she wasn’t “the mastermind behind the crime or the chief beneficiary.”
Some of the biggest wildlife crime cases, including the seizure of 7.2 metric tons of elephant tusks in July 2017 and the confiscation of 82.5 kilos of rhino horns in April 2019, did not result in any prosecution, the report says. Yet these very cases have been cited by Hong Kong’s Security Bureau as laudable examples of the Syndicate Crimes Investigation Bureau’s “determination and capacity to conduct in-depth investigations in wildlife smuggling and combat organised crime networks.”
“We’ve had three years of more deterrent sentencing, and still the tides [of illegally smuggled wildlife] are not stopping,” Whitfort said.
Right now, the majority of wildlife crimes are charged under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, which is managed by Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. But this department doesn’t have the ability to conduct thorough investigations, says Jovy Chan, manager of wildlife conservation at WWF-Hong Kong.
“The department does not have investigative power to take [a] ‘follow the money’ approach to identify the syndicate and kingpins that are involved in these illegal wildlife activities,” Chan told Mongabay in an email. “This is one of the prime reasons why there is no prosecution in some major seizures. Or there are only mules being sentenced.”
‘Enforcement Still Needed’
By making wildlife crimes subject to the provisions of Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance, authorities would have the ability to conduct more in-depth investigations into money laundering and other criminal activities, and be able to freeze assets, demand more kinds of documentation, and even take away offenders’ right to silence, Whitfort said. Penalties for these crimes would also be much harsher, she added.
Chan says the ADMCF report demonstrates the urgency to treat wildlife crimes as serious crimes, and to strengthen investigative powers and deter transnational criminal enterprises that transport illegal wildlife products through Hong Kong.
“Of course we think [including] wildlife crime into OSCO [Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance] will change the current dire situation,” she said. “That’s why WWF-Hong Kong has urged the government to empower our wildlife legislation over the years.”
In March 2021, the bill was discussed in the Legislative Council Panel on Environmental Affairs. In May, the wildlife bill was approved by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city’s head of government.
Whitfort said Lam’s support was a “crucial” step in the process. “The chief executive has to say ‘okay,’ because obviously, government resources can’t be allocated to something without her say so,” she said.
In the next step, the bill will return to the Legislative Council (LegCo) for plenary discussions.
Le Clue said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the bill will pass since there is “no real opposition” to it right now.
But Whitfort says real change will depend upon adequate enforcement through Hong Kong customs, police and other authorities.
“It’s not enough for the legislation to get changed,” she says. “You’ve got to then have the authorities using it.”
Featured image by: Paul Hilton
This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.