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Crime in Hong Kong

Wildlife smugglers must face justice

  • The lack of prosecutions following the seizure of ivory tusks worth HK$70 million is sending the wrong message to those who trade in animal parts
PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2019, 8:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2019, 8:56pm

Hong Kong appears to be doing a good job in honouring its obligation as a signatory to the international treaty of wildlife protection, as reflected in the regular seizures of imported endangered animals and their products. Regrettably, the interceptions are not always followed by prosecution and punishment. Ineffective legislation and insufficient international cooperation on this front mean many smugglers can profit from illegal trading without punishment.

It is disappointing to hear that investigations into the city’s largest seizure of ivory tusks from Malaysia in July 2017 are not going anywhere. Despite the arrest of three people in connection with the haul, worth an estimated HK$70 million, there was insufficient evidence to support a reasonable prospect of conviction, according to the Customs and Excise Department. Officials would not elaborate further, saying details were not subject to disclosure due to operational reasons. With another seizure of ivory and pangolin scales worth HK$62 million earlier this week, all eyes are on whether prosecutions will follow.

Biggest seizure of ivory in 30 years ... but zero prosecutions

The growing sophistication of international smuggling rings often makes prosecutions difficult. That explains the long-standing difficulties in penalising wildlife smuggling. A review of the 379 seizures from 2013 to 2017 by the city’s authorities found that shipping containers were used in most cases, but just 1 per cent of the cases resulted in prosecutions, according to a recent study. Even though the penalty was raised from a maximum two years in jail to 10 years in 2018, the first sentence since then was just eight months’ imprisonment for trafficking rhino horns.

Despite the government’s denial of the city’s status as a trafficking hub, the regular seizures of endangered species and their products are testimony of the severity of the problem. While the crackdown helps break off the lucrative business chain, it does little to deter smuggling if it is not followed by punishment. The low prosecution rate may send a wrong message about the city’s commitment to fighting wildlife smuggling. More vigorous investigation and international cooperation are needed to bring smugglers to justice.