At a meeting of the Legislative Council (LegCo) Panel on Environmental Affairs on 6 June 2017, Associate Professor Amanda Whitfort addressed LegCo members on the Administration’s proposal to phase out the ivory trade in Hong Kong and enhance penalties for wildlife crimes. Legally, Hong Kong has an obligation to observe the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (to which China is a signatory) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), extended to Hong Kong in 2011. Trade in pre-CITES ivory is prohibited, but Hong Kong traders continue to sell ivory stocks they claim to have been legally imported before the CITES ban in 1990. A recent investigation by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department of a shop selling ivory purported to be pre-CITES found that the ivory for sale was in fact illegal.
Whitfort argued that allowing any market for ivory in Hong Kong encourages poaching and smuggling, and permits traders to argue their stock is ethically sourced. The African elephant population is now at its lowest numbers in history and continued poaching threatens to cause their extinction. Whitfort told legislators that only when the trade is banned completely can Hong Kong claim to have played a role in ensuring a sustainable future for Africa’s elephants.
Whitfort also addressed the Administration’s proposal to raise the maximum penalty for trade in endangered species, under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance Cap 586. The intention to raise the maximum penalty for trade in endangered species to 7 years’ imprisonment presents an opportunity to bring Hong Kong’s sanctions in line with overseas jurisdictions. Globally, wildlife crime is the fourth most lucrative black market, after drugs, people and arms smuggling. In Hong Kong, the average value of seizures in endangered species is currently second only to seizures under the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, Cap 134.
However, Whitfort cautioned that raising penalties will not be enough to address the problem in Hong Kong. Studies repeatedly show Hong Kong to be a regional hub for trade in endangered species. Whitfort urged the government to officially recognize wildlife crime as organized and serious crime, permitting investigators to access the full range of powers provided under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance, Cap 455. These include the use of coercive investigative powers to gather intelligence, the right to confiscate the proceeds of crime in the District Court and the Court of First Instance and the power to seek enhanced sentences in cases involving criminal gangs. Classifying illegal trade in endangered species as a form of organized and serious crime would also allow the Hong Kong government to identify, freeze and forfeit the significant assets of criminal enterprises involved in the illegal wildlife trade (as is the case with drug trafficking). A video of Whitfort's oral deputations in LegCo can be viewed here.