WILDLIFE groups yesterday praised the Government's surprise announcement of a crackdown on animal traffickers through a 200-fold leap in the maximum fine for trading in endangered species and a newly introduced two-year prison term.
The director of animal trade monitoring body Traffic East Asia, part of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Judy Mills, said she was 'pretty well gobsmacked' by the figures.
She described them as 'setting a great precedent and perhaps some of the highest [penalties] in the world'.
'The Government has taken great steps and seems to be taking a personal pride in this issue,' she said.
The heavy penalties would set a good example at the next meeting of the signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), due in November in Fort Lauderdale.
The Animals and Plants (Protection of Endangered Species) (Amendment) Bill 1994, gazetted yesterday, proposes to boost the maximum penalty to a $5 million fine and two years in jail from a previous maximum, for a first offence of $25,000 and for a subsequent offence of $50,000 and six months' jail.
That compares with a maximum fine of $500,000 and two years' imprisonment for attempting to smuggle weapons.
The new penalty is the same as that for running an illegal gambling house.
In the region, only Australia seemed to have a comparable penalty for trading in endangered species - a fine equivalent to HK$1 million but with up to 10 years' imprisonment, a government spokesman said. Singapore's penalty was similar to Hong Kong's previous penalties and, although Taiwan was re-vising its laws, it was unlikely to bring in figures comparable to the territory's.
In Britain, smuggling could lead to an unlimited fine and seven years' imprisonment, with lower penalties for possession that varied according to species, Traffic UK representative Bobby Jo Kelso said.
The amendment does away with the distinction between first and subsequent offences but introduces different levels for highly endangered and less endangered species, and for commercial and non-commercial trading.
Import, export or possession of highly endangered species for commercial purposes - basically meaning trading for profit - will attract the top penalty.
Highly endangered species means those in the highest CITES grade, which may not be traded. They include bears and bear parts, tigers, rhinos, gorillas, giant pandas, macaws and cockatoos, elephants and some orchids.
Less endangered covers most species of owl, monkey, wild cat, deer, seal, pangolin, python and lizard, American ginseng and corals.
Medicines claiming to contain these animals will fall into the same categories as the animals.
Commercial trading of less-endangered species would attract a $500,000 fine and a year's imprisonment.
For non-commercial trading or possession of rare species, the penalty would be a $100,000 fine and a year's imprisonment; and of less rare species, $50,000 and six months' jail.
Principal Assistant Secretary for Economic Services, Eric Johnson, said even these new penalties were only on a par with some potential profits from the illegal trade.
'Two rhino horns seized recently were worth $500,000,' he said. 'So $5 million is just the equivalent of 20 rhino horns.' Twenty-two rhino horns had been seized in a suitcase bound for Taiwan, he said.
But, Ms Mills said, these penalties would be a big deterrent to traditional Chinese medicine doctors dealing in rare species.
The international wildlife community had been pressing for penalties that made the offence 'more than just a cost of doing business'.
'It used to be that the profit was so high that no one really cared,' she said.
But she warned that the effect of the fines depended on whether the courts handed them down to offenders.
Only one suspended jail sentence has been imposed on a repeat offender under the current figures, and the maximum fine meted out was $20,000, according to Agriculture and Fisheries Department figures.
For 507 prosecutions so far this year - against 117 for the whole of 1993 - the fines total was $1.3 million, an average of $2,500.
Mr Johnson agreed that current penalties imposed were 'pretty dismal', but he hoped the higher maximum figures would indicate to magistrates that the Government 'viewed the offence with serious concern'.
'We are absolutely determined to do everything we can to deter this kind of activity,' he said. 'Extinction is irreversible, and we feel that we must play our part in doing something about this.' Earthcare director Yeung Hau-man welcomed the move but said more should be done to stop the smuggling of rare species through Hong Kong to other destinations, which was more serious than trade in the territory.
The proposals are expected to be passed into law early next year.