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Investigations into Hong Kong’s largest ivory seizure in 30 years have failed to produce a single prosecution, meaning the syndicate behind the smuggling operation is still at large, the customs department has confirmed.
That failure, along with a long-standing low prosecution rate for wildlife smuggling, has sparked concerns from experts, who called on Hong Kong authorities to put more money into investigations and make the offence a more serious crime with stiffer penalties.
Confirmation that the case had hit a dead end came 1½ years after the Customs and Excise Department announced in July 2017 that it had seized more than seven tonnes of tusks worth about HK$70 million in a shipment of frozen fish from Malaysia.
The ivory was found in a 40-foot refrigerated container, which was declared to contain 7,000kg of fish, at Kwai Chung Customhouse Cargo Examination Compound in Kowloon. It was the biggest haul of ivory since records began in 1989, when an international trade ban was introduced.
Two days after the seizure, customs said a follow-up investigation had led to the arrest of three people at a local trading company, which was believed to be part of a larger syndicate using Hong Kong as a transit point.
But in response to a recent inquiry from the Post, a department spokesman said: “After investigation and seeking legal advice, no charges were laid.”
He added the seized tusks would be handed over to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for confiscation.
The Department of Justice provided customs with legal advice in December 2017. “There was insufficient evidence to support a reasonable prospect of conviction, hence no prosecution was warranted,” a justice department spokesman said.
Julian Newman, campaigns director of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said the result was disappointing.
“If you have a seizure with no enforcement or prosecution, for the traders, it’s just a business expense. There is no deterrent effect,” he said. “It’s frustrating that the good work that went into identifying the shipment and stopping it was squandered.”
Newman said he believed the shipment could have been traced had there been enough time and resources. “[Freight agents] from my experience are often key facilitators of smuggling syndicates. They are often quite involved themselves,” he said.
Customs declined to release details of its investigation or any collaboration with other agencies, saying: “Further case details are not subject to disclosure, due to operational reasons.”
According to a wildlife smuggling report released earlier this month by conservationists and legal experts, a review of 379 seizures from 2013 to 2017 found that shipping containers were used in most cases and they had arrived from at least 45 countries, with about 70 per cent from East Africa. However, just 1 per cent of the cases led to prosecutions.
Conservationists, wildlife investigators and legal professionals have called for wildlife offences to be included under the same laws as organised crime for greater deterrence and investigative power.
Giovanni Broussard, regional programme coordinator of the global programme for combating wildlife and forest crime under the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, acknowledged at a seminar that Hong Kong had increased the penalty on wildlife crime last year, from a maximum two-year jail term to 10 years.
But he said the first sentence handed down under the new penalties – eight months’ jail for rhino horn trafficking – was not heavy enough.
“Trafficking of rhino horn is a very serious crime. The implications on a population that is so small are very severe,” Broussard told the wildlife crime seminar, organised by ADM Capital Foundation, a wildlife trafficking concern group, which co-published the report.
Broussard said he hoped Hong Kong authorities could lead the way on penalties for such crimes.
According to the report’s findings, Hong Kong has become a smuggling hub for wildlife products, with the blood of 3,000 elephants, 65,000 pangolins and 51 rhinos on the city’s hands.
Among 165 prosecutions over five years reviewed in the report, penalties for convictions ranged from HK$1,500 to HK$180,000 and from 160 hours of community service to eight months in prison.
Mainland Chinese authorities appeared to be more aggressive in tackling wildlife crime.
In January, the last member of a major syndicate based in Shuidong, a small town in Fujian province, was repatriated from Nigeria and would go on trial for smuggling ivory from Africa.
The gang was exposed by an undercover EIA investigation in 2017 which uncovered more than two tonnes of ivory. In a raid in July 2017, Chinese customs reportedly sent 500 officers to Shuidong and surrounding areas, made dozens of arrests – in the process smashing two syndicates – and seized more than 7.2 tonnes of ivory, comparable to the biggest haul in Hong Kong.
“The mainland government takes the problem of illegal wildlife trade seriously and has been taking active steps to dismantle the Shuidong syndicate by arresting several of their gangster leaders,” said Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner from WildAid. He said Hong Kong should do the same and that it needed to include its wildlife protection laws under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance as soon as possible.