These Activists Are Fighting To Stop Illegal Wildlife Trafficking In Hong Kong
Customs officials at Hong Kong’s airport have seen—and seized—almost everything you can imagine. Piles of counterfeit Louis Vuitton purses. Ziplock bags stuffed with heroin tucked under insoles. Orange ecstasy pills cut into the shape of Donald Trump, trademark quiff and all.
But customs agents now regularly encounter a very different sort of illegal cargo. In January this year, they unzipped the suitcase of a passenger disembarking from a flight from Jakarta and found 658 young pig-nosed turtles squirming inside, all cruelly stacked on top of each other.
Some had been crushed to death on the journey. This was not an isolated incident. It was one of 522 cases of wildlife trafficking intercepted in Hong Kong in just the first eight months of this year.
“Hong Kong is not just a wildlife trafficking hub, it is the global hub for wildlife trafficking,” explains Alex Hofford, a campaign manager for WildAid. “More wildlife seizures are made at the border between Hong Kong and Mainland China than anywhere else in the world. You can even put in poaching orders here. In a 2015 undercover investigation, we discovered one guy who said, ‘I can pick up the phone and order you an African elephant tomorrow.’”
Elephants have historically been in high demand because of their tusks, which are carved into ivory jewellery and sculptures, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the wildlife trade.
Between January and August this year, customs officials seized 174 tonnes of illegal wildlife products at the city’s borders, including rhino horn, shark fin and a staggering 16 tonnes of pangolin scales, for which it’s likely at least 30,000 of the mammals were slaughtered.
Tens of thousands of live animals are also rescued every year from suitcases and shipping containers at Hong Kong’s borders, ranging from monitor lizards and frogs to those unlucky pig-nosed turtles.
So why is Hong Kong such a hotspot? For a start, its laws against wildlife trafficking have historically lagged far behind those of many countries.
“When a guy has maybe 50 radiated tortoises in his suitcase that are worth over a million dollars and the sentence is a fine of HK$10,000, that is not a deterrent,” says Amanda Whitfort, an associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong whose research focuses on animal cruelty and wildlife trafficking. “The guy will come back and do it again. And in many cases we do have repeat offending.”
Then, just as importantly, there’s Hong Kong’s geographical position as the gateway to Mainland China, the source of much of the global demand for both animal products and live animals.
The criminal nature of the trade means it’s impossible to get exact figures, but experts estimate that most of the wildlife trafficked illegally into Hong Kong is then smuggled into the mainland to be eaten (shark fin), used in traditional Chinese medicine (rhino horn and pangolin scales) or kept as pets (in the case of species such as the endangered black pond turtle).
Something clearly needs to be done, and a coalition of charities, NGOs and individuals is leading the charge. In 2015, international and local NGOs, as well as experts like Whitfort, were gathered together by the ADM Capital Foundation to form the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group.
“The group allows us to share our research and expertise, so that we can all better tackle wildlife trafficking. It helps us work together more effectively to engage the public and the government with a unified voice,” explains Rosana Ng, the environment programme officer at ADM Capital Foundation.
The foundation is currently compiling the working group’s most recent research into its second report on the wildlife trade in Hong Kong, titled Trading In Extinction, which will be released in January 2019.
Trafficking live animals
One of the findings of the report is that the smuggling of live animals through Hong Kong remains an enormous issue, with some species being brought into the city by the thousand, decimating wild populations.
“We’ve had about 48,000 animals go through our rescue centre since it was opened in 1994,” says Gary Ades, head of fauna at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, where many of the live animals seized at the border are cared for while smugglers await trial. Once a sentence has been passed, Kadoorie Farm works to repatriate the animals or, if that’s not possible, move them to a respected conservation centre.
The majority of trafficked live animals are reptiles, in particular turtles and tortoises historically eaten in China but now in demand as pets. Many of these species are being poached in such extreme numbers that conservationists are referringing to the situation as the Asian turtle crisis.
“To the criminals, these animals are just objects,” says Ades. “They estimate how many animals are going to die in transit and factor that into their costs. Some of these animals die in a very bad way. And sometimes these are species where the death of one individual may be important in the big scheme of things—there might only be 200 of them in the world.”
The trade in live fish
It’s not just live reptiles, mammals and birds being smuggled through Hong Kong. Live fish are illegally trafficked into and through the city, too. Many of these are groupers caught in Indonesia, though the city also remains a trading hub for Napoleon fish, an endangered species that cannot be sold without a permit.
Some Napoleon fish are sold at seafood markets in Lei Yue Mun, Tuen Mun and Sai Kung, but others end up on plates in some of the city’s top restaurants.
“There are restaurants in high-end hotels, including very famous ones which we all know, that don’t hold Napoleon fish in their tanks but they do order them,” says Yvonne Sadovy, a professor in the University of Hong Kong’s school of biological sciences and a global expert in the trade of live reef fish. “Some of them may not even know that what they’re doing is illegal, but they need a possession permit even if they’re selling these fish.”
Napoleon fish and groupers are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they take a long time to reach sexual maturity, so populations aren’t being replenished fast enough to meet demand. Sadovy regularly provides information on illegal trafficking to the government, which has cracked down in some cases, and she is also developing a new app to combat the trade in Napoleon fish.
“If you look at the face of a Napoleon fish it has the most beautiful markings and they’re like fingerprints—you can distinguish different fish from each other from the markings,” she says. “One of the problems we have is of restaurants laundering fish—a restaurant may have a licence to sell one, so they only keep one in their tanks at any one time but they actually sell several. If you’re a law enforcement officer walking past every day, you’re not going to notice that it’s a different fish. With this app, you take a picture once, it’s in the database, you go back and take another picture and ping, it tells you whether it’s the same fish or not. This could really help us.”
New technology is also being used to try to stop the illegal trade in fins from certain species of shark, which continue to be trafficked into and through Hong Kong by the tonne.
“Customs officials from Mainland China asked to borrow some shark fins,” recalls Stan Shea, marine programme director of conservation organisation Bloom Hong Kong. “The 3D scan goes into their scanning systems at ports and all the baggage that goes through the scanning machine will be automatically scanned for the shape of shark fin. We don’t know when that’s going to be implemented, but I hope it’s soon.”
There are other encouraging signs that the working group is making progress. In January this year, the Hong Kong government announced that it would phase out the trade in ivory by 2021, giving traders three years to shut up shop.
“That was huge—the importance of that can’t be overstated,” says Hofford. The government has also broken with tradition by banning shark fin from official banquets. Maxim’s, Hong Kong’s largest restaurant group, followed suit in September, announcing that it would begin phasing out shark fin and stop serving it entirely in 2020.
There has been some promising movement in the courts. Soon after the government banned the trade in ivory, it also increased the maximum penalty for illegal wildlife trafficking to a HK$10 million fine and 10 years’ imprisonment.
In October this year, a man found guilty of smuggling 3.1kg of rhino horn was sentenced to eight months in prison, which is a slightly harsher sentence than in previous cases. But this is still not enough. “Eight months is on the higher end of the scale, but it remains below the level we would expect and need to see in order to deter wildlife trafficking syndicates,” says Ng.
To really tackle illegal trafficking, everyone in the working group agrees that the most important thing is to move wildlife crime to schedule one of the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance.
“Interpol classifies wildlife crime as organised and serious crime,” Whitfort explains. “And there are important features once a crime is recognised as organised and serious crime that make it more effective to prosecute. You have much greater investigative power—you have the power to require [criminals] to answer questions about their activities, discover the criminal targets, and you have the power to freeze assets. I do not understand how dangerous drugs can be treated as a serious offence in Hong Kong yet wildlife derivatives that are also illegally traded here, and in many cases are worth much more than dangerous drugs, are not treated with any kind of seriousness.”
The power of the police
Moving wildlife crime to schedule one of the ordinance would also allow the police to launch investigations into wildlife trafficking, which currently falls under the remit of the Customs and Excise Department and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.
“The police could leverage their powers of financial forensics and cybercrime forensics when they make a seizure,” says Hofford. “They could trace back the money or follow the consignment to its end destination and arrest the people higher up the chain.”
These criminals higher up the chain are collectively making billions of US dollars by illegally trading wildlife, yet right now they face no consequences. “
We’ve heard that some of the kingpins are wealthy individuals living in Hong Kong,” adds Hofford. “They’re very much in the public eye, they’re not hiding—they could even be reading this magazine. We need to go after those people.”
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