13 November 2020
Seizures of smuggled wild animals are so big in Hong Kong that they are measured in the tens of tonnes. In 2019 alone, according to government figures, 30 tonnes of endangered species – live birds, insects, reptiles, fish and mammals – were seized. The figures exclude animal parts such as ivory and pangolin scales, and the wood of endangered trees.
Despite the huge volumes involved, law professor Amanda Whitfort says the situation is “the elephant in the room that nobody wants to see”.
“Wildlife crime in Hong Kong has been severely under-punished,” says the barrister and environmental law expert at the University of Hong Kong.
“Ridiculously low sentences have been handed out; they do not act as deterrents. And we have never, ever had a prosecution in Hong Kong that goes beyond the mule. We only get the guy who got paid a few hundred dollars, along with his ticket to Hong Kong. He is immediately replaced with someone else.
Whitfort says that when a suspected wildlife trafficker is apprehended in Hong Kong, the trail usually goes cold.
“The suspect has the right to remain silent, and so he refuses to answer questions and provide information about who hired him to move the contraband into and through Hong Kong,” she says. “Investigators do not routinely pursue the financial investigations necessary to find out who is behind the shipment. The trail of investigation stops, the result is a light sentence – focused on the mule.”
Treating wildlife crime as an organised and serious crime under the law would change that, says Whitfort, because coercive powers of investigation currently reserved for serious crimes such as drugs and weapons trafficking could be used.
Investigators could use court orders to compel suspected wildlife smugglers to answer questions and force them to produce material, such as business records kept in Hong Kong or elsewhere, which could help establish the chain of people involved. Police would also have options if the trail led abroad.
“Hong Kong has agreements for co-investigation with over 30 other governments, so the transnational nature of the crime can be combated through international cooperation in the tracing of assets and sharing of seized proceeds,” says Whitfort. Click here to read the full text.