ONLY a handful of Hong Kong's 57 known triad gangs remain 'active and influential' powers in the underworld, police intelligence reveals. And the force's foremost triad expert says crime gangs here have ditched traditional hierarchies, opting now to operate like Italian-American 'mafia crews'. A paper prepared by the Criminal Intelligence Bureau (CIB), obtained by the Sunday Morning Post, says the vast majority of triad gangs known to exist are now considered 'inconsequential'. It says police have dismissed them as no threat to law and order. But despite a fall-off in the number of active gangs, the proportion of known crime carried out by triads has remained at the same level over the past 10 years - between 3.8 and 4.8 per cent of all crimes. The head of the CIB's Tactical Intelligence Division has warned that triads are increasingly turning to the use of firearms to settle gangland disputes. Detective Superintendent Edward Leung Ka-ming said: 'We normally speak of the existence of around 50 different triad societies in Hong Kong today, with less than 15 coming to regular police attention. 'The inactive societies are considered inconsequential and we may discount them completely as being of any threat to law and order,' he told an international gathering of police in London. The paper lists the most active triad societies today as the Sun Yee On, the 14K, and the Wo Group. Their main areas of criminal enterprise remain wounding, extortion, protection rackets, loan-sharking, drug dealing, prostitution and illegal gambling. But Mr Leung says triads are increasingly becoming involved as partners in transnational organised crime networks specialising in drugs and white-collar crime, while shifting their criminal proceeds into legitimate business. The force's foremost triad expert, Chief Inspector Ip Pau-fuk, said the main groups mentioned by Mr Leung had active subgroups, namely the 14K's Ngai, Tak and Big Circle factions, and the Wo Group's Wo Hop To, Wo Shing Wo, Wo Shing Yee and Wo Lei Wo. Organised crime gangs - like that of Big Spender Cheung Tze-keung, who was executed on December 5, and the mainland-recruited Big Circle group - are designated non-triad because they observe none of the traditional Chinese secret society rituals. He said that it was impossible to put a figure on the number of triad members in the SAR. 'In some cases even the office-bearers don't know. People move in, move out and are recruited by other gangs. 'The structures are much more loosely knit and self-contained now - members of local triad groups pay their local leader, not the dragonhead as in the past. It's much along the same lines as mafia gangs in the US,' said Mr Ip.