Wildlife trafficking through Hong Kong must be treated as an organised crime to be handled by the police


Mike Rowse, Comment/Insight & Opinion, The South China Morning Post

Date Published

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Perhaps it is because I am a six-time grandfather already, and expect to add to that score when my two teenage children marry. Or perhaps it is because a friend recently asked me to be godfather to his baby daughter who, with an average lifespan, can expect to live well into the next century. Either way, I have begun to give more thought to the kind of world we will bequeath to future generations.

I think we are all familiar – some American friends, such as US President Donald Trump, excluded – with the science on climate change, so I won’t dwell on it. We are also familiar with the horror of plastic starting to clog our oceans and enter the piscatorial food chain.

But one aspect I had not really focused on up to now was what humankind has done, and is doing, to the other species that share our world. 

No one could read Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book, Sapiens, without coming away with a deep sense of unease about the way we factory farm chickens, cows and other creatures on an industrial scale to feed humans without regard to the animals’ own circumstances. Our bellies are full of tender beef, but the calf never meets its mother. 
One doesn’t need to be of a particularly religious bent to wonder at the ethical propriety of this.

And so to the RTHK radio discussion last week of Hong Kong’s role in wildlife trafficking. 

Our customs officers recently seized more than HK$60 million worth of elephant tusks and pangolin scales that arrived in a shipment from Africa. 
It was the biggest ever seizure of pangolin scales. Although the container originated in Nigeria, the pangolins themselves probably came from other countries on the continent. 
You may wonder why pangolin scales from Africa are coming into Asia: the brutal truth is that there are few pangolins left here.

There were over 1,000 elephant tusks in the seized cargo, which means more than 500 elephants must have been slaughtered. Step by step, we are driving myriad species to the brink of extinction.

Hong Kong was not likely to have been the final destination for most of the contraband cargo. Rather, we are a link in the logistics chain because of our efficient port and airport. Reports indicate the cargo may have been destined for Vietnam, close to the Chinese border.

While mainland China has banned the ivory trade, a complete ban in Hong Kong will come into effect on December 31, 2021, while the provenance of existing stock is already subject to scrutiny. 

Some of the traditional Chinese medicine shops here stock pangolin products, but it is unlikely local people are a major consumer. The same cannot be said for our many retail-driven visitors.

Hong Kong’s young people seem more sensitive to the need for better protection of the environment, including fauna and flora. Many couples specify they do not want shark fin soup served at their wedding banquet, for example, and withstand the frowns of older relatives. 

Many of our better hotels have responded by removing the dish from the menu.

According to the United Nations, wildlife and forest crime is the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking, and is frequently linked to other serious crimes, such as fraud, money laundering and corruption. 

Interpol and the UN Environmental Programme estimated in 2016 that natural resources worth as much as US$91 billion to US$258 billion annually are being stolen by criminals, depriving countries of future revenues and development opportunities. This crime sector is growing at two to three times the pace of the global economy.

Hong Kong has robust legislation to deal with such illegal activities, in the form of the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (Cap 455), which empowers law enforcement agencies to go after the profits of organised crime, thus representing a meaningful deterrent. 

However, a glaring omission to the list of crimes to which the ordinance applies, such as murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, is the trade in endangered species.

Responsibility in Hong Kong for dealing with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species rests with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. 

When customs officers seize unlawful products, they refer the matter to this department. There is also apparently a role for the Environmental Protection Department. 
I mean no disrespect to either the conservation department or the Environmental Protection Department but they are not top of mind when one considers who is best able to tackle organised crime. That must surely be the police.

The fact that trade in endangered species is not regarded as a serious crime probably explains why nobody is being prosecuted in the case of the record ivory seizure in 2017.

This is not good enough. As a community, we owe it to ourselves and most of all to our grandchildren to do better than this.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises