Seizures of endangered animal products trafficked via air rise 40pc as smugglers increasingly look to the skies
Seizures of illegal wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn smuggled via air networks jumped in 2017, with China the most common destination for seized products and Hong Kong playing a key role
Rhino horn seizures at airports increased 193 per cent in 2017, a worrying trend outlined in a report that also found that criminals are “highly dependent” on commercial air transport systems to traffic endangered animal products.
The report, “In Plane Sight: Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector” by US charity C4ADS, looked at airport seizures of illegal wildlife and wildlife products between 2009 to 2017. It found trafficking instances in at least 136 countries and that wildlife seizures in air transport increased 40 per cent in 2017.
“Wildlife seizure data is vital for identifying, understanding and combating wildlife trafficking in airports around the world,” says the report’s co-author Mary Utermohlen.
The data indicates that wildlife traffickers moving ivory, rhino horn, reptiles, birds, pangolins, marine products and mammals by air tend to rely on large hub airports all over the world.
China was the most common destination for all seized wildlife products over the nine-year period.
The report also found a growing trend in the use of tailor-made vests to traffic ivory into Hong Kong Airport, the most common ivory trafficking route being from Zimbabwe, through Dubai, to Hong Kong.
It also said that while checked luggage remains the most common transport method for rhino horn, an increasing amount is being smuggled in carry-on bags and in small pieces taped to the bodies of traffickers.
Hong Kong is a hotspot for illegal wildlife trafficking. In 2016, the Customs and Excise Department uncovered 309 cases involving endangered species of animals and plants.
According to Traffic, a charity that monitors the global wildlife trade, the trade of illegal wildlife is the fourth-largest black market in the world – estimated to be as much as US$20 billion annually – and affects more than 7,000 species of animals and plants. Criminal organisations involved in wildlife trafficking are often directly connected to other trafficking networks, with the profits being used for all manner of illegal activities.
Wildlife crime investigation group the Elephant Action League released a report in July called “Operation Fake Gold”. The report found that China’s appetite for fish maw was driving the vaquita – the world’s smallest porpoise – to the brink of extinction and fuelling an illegal trade from Mexico to China, with Hong Kong playing a key hub role.
In May, Hong Kong introduced harsher penalties for offences under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, Cap 586, to a maximum fine of HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) and imprisonment for 10 years – up from a maximum HK$5 million fine and two years’ prison.
Wildlife crimes are now regarded as indictable offences and may be tried in the district and high courts of Hong Kong.
But some environmentalists, including Gary Stokes, Asia director of Sea Shepherd Global, a conservation charity, say the Hong Kong courts are still not taking wildlife crime seriously. This is shown by cases not being heard in the District Court or High Court, where tougher penalties can be imposed, and instead going through the Magistrates’ Court where penalties are lower.
In one case in June, 5.9kg of rhino horn and 410 grams of worked ivory worth around US$150,000 were seized at Hong Kong International Airport. The passenger, a Chinese businessman flying from South Africa, pleaded guilty but was sentenced to just four months’ imprisonment.
Stokes cites another case in January when officers of Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department seized about 28kg of illegal totoaba swim bladders worth about US$1.4 million during a bust at Hong Kong airport. Stokes says their lenient sentences – one man got 10 weeks in prison, the other 14 weeks – show prosecutors and judges do not take seriously enough the illegal trade in wild animals and their body parts, which is behind only the smuggling of illegal drugs, arms and human trafficking in terms of the most lucrative global black markets.
China is the world’s most prominent importer of illicit marine products, with Hong Kong the main destination airport, according to the C4ADS report.
“Marine products destined for Chinese airports have originated from all over the world, including Mexico, Spain, South Africa, Madagascar, and Thailand, but seem to be primarily destined for just one Chinese airport: Hong Kong,” the report states.
“Of the 22 marine air trafficking instances destined for China with destination city-level information, 15 were en route to Hong Kong, or in Hong Kong, when they were seized. The marine species destined for Hong Kong Airport varied, from eels (four instances), to shark fins (also four instances), totoaba bladders (two), seahorses (two), abalone (two), sea cucumbers (one), and rays (one) …
“Hong Kong is known for having thriving demand markets, both legal and illegal, for marine products, including shark fins, sea cucumbers, abalone, and fish bladders (certain species behind all three of these products are highly protected by national and international laws).”
The report also states that Hong Kong’s large, affluent business community means that even the most expensive marine species can be sold in high-end fish markets and restaurants.
“Some high-end restaurants even offer special, under-the-table menus for valued patrons including expensive, in-demand endangered species,” it says.
Hong Kong members of the public can report suspected smuggling activities to the customs 24-hour hotline on 2545 6182.