To The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, Secretary for Security and Secretary for the Environment,
We, the undersigned, express our support to the Hong Kong Government to make the necessary legislative amendments to treat wildlife crimes under Cap. 455, The Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance (“OSCO”).
Wildlife Crime is ORGANIZED
Hong Kong has been identified as a significant hub for trafficking of wildlife, mainly ascertained through the significant volume and number of seizures of wildlife, which is disproportionate when compared to other countries in the region. Through documented prosecutions, indictments and sanctions overseas, as well as international investigations and reports from the media, Hong Kong has also been repeatedly identified as a hub for organized wildlife crime.
There is a tendency to believe that smuggled wildlife is just ‘in transit’, presumably to mainland China, thereby minimizing Hong Kong’s culpability and responsibility. We argue that Hong Kong is a hub, and that wildlife crimes are organized and serious crimes that should be addressed as a priority.
Hong Kong is clearly favoured by ‘professional’ (as opposed to inexperienced or unwitting) traffickers in some of the most valuable and prolifically traded commodities in the world, including rhino horns, pangolins, valuable wood products and European eels. Persons or entities / businesses involved in the crimes prosecuted locally, have been based in Hong Kong and their presence here integral to the commission of the crime.
Despite Kong Kong’s relatively small size, its position as the world’s leading air cargo hub, 8th largest container port and 4th busiest international passenger airport, as well as its close proximity to key demand centres for wildlife products, mean that wildlife trafficking into and through the city is effectively contributing to the global extinction crisis, and disproportionately so. It is lining the pockets of criminal syndicates and transnational trafficking networks who use our city’s key infrastructure for illegal activities.
Based on publicly available seizure data, syndicates and individual traffickers from at least 60 countries / territories (nearly a third of the world’s countries) have smuggled endangered and regulated wildlife into Hong Kong, ranging from rhino horn to live otters, since 2013.
Wildlife crimes are SERIOUS
“Seriousness” is indicated by the commodity trafficked, including its level of conservation threat or endangerment and its value on the illicit market.
The illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative business, and has been ranked alongside narcotics, arms and human trafficking by institutions such as Interpol, the World Customs Organization and UNODC. A review of 528 seizure cases from January 2013 to December 2019 indicate that hundreds of species of rare and endangered wildlife are being illegally traded in Hong Kong [i]. Endangered wildlife seized in the last 7 years has been valued at over HK$767 million [ii], but like many crimes, these seizures are likely the tip of the iceberg and the true figure significantly higher, especially as government estimates can be conservative [iii].
Current enforcement measures are NOT ENOUGH
In 2018, Hong Kong took significant steps, by phasing out the domestic ivory trade, introducing indictable offences and raising penalties to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment for smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species. The Hong Kong Government affirmed that the amendments made to the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Cap. 586) on 1st May 2018 were to “provide a strong deterrent against illicit wildlife trade and to show that the Government is very serious about deterring these crimes”. [iv]
Although the amendments to Cap. 586 have been in place for over two years, Hong Kong remains a major hub for wildlife trafficking. Seizure volumes continue to be large and amongst some of the highest in the world, and in some instances are increasing. Hong Kong has recorded 6 record-breaking seizure cases in just the past 2 years. Volumes are further likely underestimated given the sheer volume of the trade and inspection customs capacity.
Following the increase in penalties, some harsher sentencing for wildlife crime has been observed, but the bar previously set was low and even now these sentences still remain far below the maximum permitted. As seizures continue at pace, it is clear that the desired deterrence effect is not being achieved.
Worryingly, prosecutions of large volume seizures remain rare with cases often dropped by Hong Kong authorities due to a lack of evidence. No individuals or organizations have been prosecuted for some of the Hong Kong’s record-breaking seizures including: the city’s largest seizures of pangolins (comprising 8.3MT of pangolins with 2.1MT of ivory in 2019) and the largest seizure of ivory (comprising 7.2MT of ivory in 2017).
NEARLY ALL those prosecuted in Hong Kong were carriers or ‘mules’
Currently, the Agriculture and Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) and not Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) or the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) investigate the vast majority of wildlife trafficking cases, despite AFCD officers having limited training and powers to do so safely and effectively. Instead of investigating and prosecuting the organized networks and criminal syndicates involved in these crimes, those prosecuted in Hong Kong are predominantly carriers or low level ‘mules’, typically caught red-handed at the airport or other border control points.
An enhanced enforcement strategy is needed
Recognizing wildlife crime as a form of organized crime provides a number of significant benefits in terms of tackling the problem nationally and contributing to international efforts to address this burgeoning threat. Accurate identification of crime threats helps to ensure that appropriate enforcement and criminal justice resources are applied. In most cases that would be the police, given the wealth of resources and specialist units available to them. Matching the problem to the solution more accurately is also more efficient than over-burdening a less-equipped agency that may struggle to meet evidential requirements sufficient to support a prosecution. Hong Kong urgently needs an enhanced enforcement strategy that goes well beyond the status quo.
Ultimately, accepting wildlife crime as a form of organized and serious crime would be beneficial to enforcement agencies, and lead to a deterrent effect against offenders, targeting the profits they aim to gain.
We therefore urge the government to bring Wildlife Crimes under Cap. 455, The Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance, so that enforcement authorities can use all the prosecutorial powers available under Hong Kong Laws. This Ordinance is aimed at tackling the growth of organized and serious crimes in Hong Kong, and to improve the ability to investigate and prosecute by providing for a combination of enforcement and deterrent methods, including:
- additional investigation powers;
- confiscation measures;
- wider provision against money laundering; and
- enhancement of sentencing in respect of specified offences involving organized crime. [v]
[i] Hong Kong Government Press Releases, Controlling Officers Replies to the Finance Committee and responses to Legislative Council Questions.
[ii] a) Financial Committee (2020) Examinations of Expenditure – 2020-21. Legislative Council: Hong Kong.; b) C&ED (2020) Personal Communications.; c) C&ED (2020) Personal Communications.
[iii] Wildlife Justice Commission.
[iv] Legislative Council Secretariat (2018) Report of the Bills Committee on Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants (Amendment) Bill 2017 (LC Paper No. CB(1)508/17-18), p.48.
[v] Annotated Ordinances of Hong Kong: Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance, Cap.455, Introduction Chapter.