Hong Kong’s fight against illegal wildlife trade needs more teeth

Sophie le Clue hails recent decisions taken at the world convention on trade in endangered species, but says Hong Kong, while doing well on seizures, must do more to punish perpetrators

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 2016, 2:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 2016, 8:43pm

Few people are aware of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, yet after two weeks of negotiations, 152 of its member countries have determined the fate of some of the world’s most threatened plants and wildlife.

Sixty-two proposals were put forward to increase protection of animals including the African lion, elephant and grey parrot, pangolins, sharks and many more. Most proposals were accepted and international trade in all eight species of pangolin, the African grey parrot, and barbary macaque is now banned, while domestic ivory markets will be closed, in a meeting hailed as the most critical in Cites’ 43-year history.

Chinese celebrities chew their nails for campaign against rhino horn trade

Illegal wildlife trade has reached unprecedented levels, driven by demand in Asia. The trafficking in live animals is particularly distressing. The great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans) are being poached for zoos in the Middle East and Asia, and to supply the exotic pet trade amid soaring regional affluence. Furthermore, 595 rangers, half of them from Asia, have been murdered since 2009 while protecting targeted species.

For Hong Kong, Cites’ decisions will inevitably mean more trafficking, more crime and more work for both the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and the customs department, which, while doing an admirable job of seizing contraband, do less well in securing maximum penalties. The penalties themselves are too light and the government is seeking to raise them and make some offences indictable, with a maximum fine of HK$10 million and four years in prison.

But this doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Hong Kong police and its specialised task forces are seldom involved in investigating wildlife crime. But, when tonnes of high-value contraband such as ivory, rhino horn and pangolins are seized without investigating the real perpetrators, the cycle continues. Criminal syndicates persist, supply is restocked, rare animals are poached, rangers continue to die and communities’ wildlife resources are lost.

‘The future of elephants is in the hands of Hong Kong’: top wildlife advocate turns up heat on city over ivory trade

Yet Hong Kong does have an Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance. The problem is that there are no mechanisms to trigger it for wildlife offences. Recognising the billions of dollars involved, the extent of trafficking and associated violence, other jurisdictions are acknowledging that wildlife crime is a threat to national security.

Hong Kong needs to take stock of what is happening at its borders and the role it could play in tackling this global crisis. The legislature must recognise wildlife crime as both serious and organised, and provide the police with the mandate to fight the real perpetrators.

Sophie le Clue is director of environmental programmes at ADM Capital Foundation