Cargoes of cruelty

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2005, 12:00am

Revenge is a rare and exotic dish when you're a scaly anteater. The human predators pushing this little-known species towards extinction are not often cornered - but, for anteaters everywhere, April 18 looked like being one of those deliciously unusual occasions.

On that spring afternoon, police alerted by villagers raced to Hoi Ha Wan in Sai Kung Country Park, where they found 150 tightly packaged crates piled up on the beach apparently ready to be ghosted across the narrow stretch of sea to the mainland.

Inside were 1,800 of the nocturnal forest-dwelling creatures - also known as pangolins - vacuum-packed along with about 800kg of scales, commodities that fetch a handsome price in China where they are credited with magical healing properties.

Three men were arrested at the scene on suspicion of smuggling a protected species of wildlife, an offence which carries a maximum penalty of two years' jail and a $5 million fine.

It was one of the biggest hauls of pangolins found anywhere in the region in recent years, and the arrests looked like being a significant victory in the fight against what conservationists see as the growing problem of wildlife smuggling through Hong Kong.

Since then, it appears the case against the suspected smugglers has run into choppy waters. More than eight weeks after the arrests, no prosecution has been brought and the chances of a day in court in the cause of the pangolin's preservation appear to be receding.

A spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), which took over the case after the police arrests, said the case was under investigation. However, the AFCD investigator handling the case told one key witness in an e-mail at the end of May that the evidence so far was 'not strong enough' for a prosecution.

There is no question that the pangolins - trade in which has been prohibited since 2000 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) - were an illegal haul. However, it appears that there is insufficient evidence to link the arrested suspects to what was found on the beach of Hoi Ha Wan.

The prospect of Hong Kong not only being unable to bring a successful prosecution, but being unable to even get a case to court, has generated concern among conservationists fighting for a tough approach to wildlife smuggling.

Eric Bohm, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong World Wide Fund for Nature, said he was 'appalled' to hear that the case had apparently stalled and said it would be 'a sad day for us all' if no one was brought to account for it.

He said the case highlighted the difficulty of dealing with cases involving wildlife smuggling. 'We understand that the residents of Hoi Ha Wan had phoned the police as well as the AFCD on several previous occasions, with little or no reaction,' he said.

There are suspicions that the pangolins found may have been only the latest in a series of batches smuggled through the country park and out of Hong Kong using the 'smugglers' cove' of Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park in the northeastern New Territories, a short speedboat ride from the mainland.

Whereas on previous occasions the calls to police had come too late for suspects to be intercepted, this time the operation was conducted in daylight, with lorries driving into the village and unloading their cargo on to the beach in front of a number of witnesses.

Only a handful of cases involving the smuggling of wildlife have been successfully brought to court in Hong Kong and the mechanism for prosecuting when it happens outside a customs zone is cumbersome, with police holding the power of arrest and the AFCD holding the power of prosecution.

'We have the power of arrest in all these cases but not the power of prosecution,' said Wong Tai Sin district police commander Ian Seabourne. 'We pass everything on immediately to the government department responsible and they take it on from there.'

Conservationists said the episode at Hoi Ha Wan highlighted the need for the government to wake up to the extent of smuggled wildlife passing through Hong Kong and examine more effective ways to stem the flow.

It's not just pangolins that are the issue, said Alan Leung Sze-lun, senior conservation officer with the WWF, who added that his group was 'seriously concerned about the illegal smuggling of wild animals' through the territory. Two laws - the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance and the Animals and Plants (Protection of Endangered Species) Ordinance - are in place in Hong Kong as a safeguard against wildlife smuggling, but Dr Leung said the question was whether the laws were doing their job.

'We have to find out if both ordinances provide adequate power for the administration to effectively protect this species and other protected species,' he said, adding that Hong Kong had an international obligation to protect the pangolin.

'We would urge the government to enhance information exchanges between Hong Kong and both the importing and exporting countries on the illegal trade of the threatened species.'

There is no question that the pangolin is in need of friends. Often mistaken as a reptile and with none of the conservation appeal of pandas or elephants, the most attractive thing about the pangolin seems to be the high price it can fetch on the mainland's burgeoning market for animal parts for use in traditional medicine.

China's growing wealth is bringing with it an increased demand for exotic elixirs and medicines.

Pangolin scales are believed to have potent curative powers and are used to treat conditions ranging from allergies and skin conditions to sexually transmitted diseases.

The animal's scales are also mixed with herbs and blood to produce aphrodisiacs and pain killers, or as an elixir to increase milk production in breastfeeding women. Pangolin meat is eaten as an expensive delicacy, while their skin is used to make shoes and handbags, making the trade in pangolins exceptionally cost-effective and profitable for a small creature.

Wildlife experts say pangolins for the mainland market used to be hunted down in the forests of Vietnam and Laos, but populations there became so depleted as demand accelerated that most are now imported from Malaysia, and Sumatra and Borneo, in Indonesia. A number of sub-species have already been wiped out.

Hong Kong has a small population of wild pangolins, but the animals seized at Hoi Ha Wan are believed to have been hidden in a cargo shipped from Malaysia. Samuel Lee Kwok-hung, Hong Kong programme officer for the wildlife watchdog group Traffic in East Asia, said customs officials faced a huge challenge in combatting the illegal trade.

'As the busiest port in the world, Hong Kong has a massive volume of goods coming in and going out every day,' said Mr Lee. 'Only a very small percentage of containers are inspected by the HK Customs, which is in the frontline of enforcement.'

He said that like tortoises and freshwater turtles, wild populations of pangolins had been depleted across the region by the mainland's insatiable demand. Sourcing has now shifted as far afield as the Indian subcontinent.

Because of the well-established infrastructure in Hong Kong, with a minimum tariff policy and lower trade controls, sending wildlife products to Hong Kong and then the mainland now carried less risk of being intercepted than shipping directly to China, he said.

As well as routes like the one via Hoi Ha Wan, wildlife products could easily be hidden in trucks and river barges going from Hong Kong to the mainland. 'Again, it's the David and Goliath phenomenon,' Mr Lee said.

The answer, he argued, was intelligence - knowing what to look out for and targeting manpower accordingly. 'Because of the limited resources available, there is a need to strengthen the risk profile of the wildlife trade, especially the illegal portion,' he said.

Mr Lee said Traffic was willing to provide 'live intelligence, analysis and advice to authorities on selected wildlife products that are known to be coming through Hong Kong'. He said all that was needed now was for officials to accept the offer.

In Hoi Ha Wan, the villagers who blew the whistle on the suspected smugglers are waiting to see if their efforts on behalf of an ungainly creature that they admit they knew little about before April 18 were in vain.

Witness Nicola Newbery, who is also chair of the conservation group Friends of Hoi Ha, was unimpressed at the efforts so far, saying co-operation between government departments was slow and that 'vital time was lost before evidence was collected'.

'It is vitally important Hong Kong is seen to be doing its utmost to stamp out the trade in endangered species and upholding its commitments under Cites,' she said.

'Whatever happens in this particular case, Hong Kong must put in place the infrastructure to stamp out this type of smuggling.'