Hong Kong is Hub for Illegal Wildlife Trade: ADMCF Report
In a report published last month, the ADM Capital Foundation — a Hong Kong-based environmental advocacy foundation — found that Hong Kong has become the largest market for illegal wildlife products, including pangolin fins and rhino horns. Per the report, illegal wildlife products worth 560 million Hong Kong dollars (71.4 million USD) — mainly elephant ivory, pangolin scales, rhinoceros horns — were seized over the span of five years, with the volume of seized products equaling to killings of roughly 3,000 elephants, 65,000 pangolins, and 51 rhinoceroses mostly sourced from East Africa.
While Hong Kong has recently stepped up its effort to address the growing amount of wildlife shipments, environmental advocates continue to criticize the perceived leniency of legal punishment and lack of proper investigation and prosecution by Hong Kong government agencies for smuggling wildlife products.
Recent busts by Hong Kong officials have confirmed the continued massive volume of black market smuggling and trade for products derived from these endangered animals. The city’s Customs and Excise Department seized a record 62 million Hong Kong dollars (7.9 million USD) worth of endangered wildlife contraband bound for mainland China on Jan. 31 and another record 8 million Hong Kong dollars (1 million USD) worth of severed rhino horns from alleged smugglers traveling to Vietnam from South Africa via Hong Kong International Airport on Feb. 15, 2019.
Products such as pangolin scales, ivory tusks, and rhino horns are popular in China (and parts of Southeast Asia) for their value as status symbols, ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, and rare delicacies in local cuisine.
Hong Kong, owing to its favorable location and its prior history as a British colony, has been a center for the exotic wildlife trade for centuries, with products entering the nearby Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian via Hong Kong’s busy ports and bustling markets. However, at present, much of the cargo containing illegal wildlife goods are headed to other territories in Asia, mainly to China and Vietnam, where traders have profited in large sums from buying and selling these products.
With regards to China, experts suggest that the growing number of Chinese middle class and upper-class citizens contribute to the increase in demand for illegal wildlife products. Beijing has been relatively quick to address the issue of environmental life protection and trading of wildlife products. In 1993, the government banned rhino horn and tiger bone in response to US pressure for China to adhere to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international ban on commercial trade of rhinos and tigers, although conservationists continue to point to the flourishing black market for endangered animals in the mainland.
In Hong Kong, however, bans of illegal wildlife products by the authorities are not strictly enforced. According to experts, one factor may be that the law that prosecutes wildlife crime is too lenient, which may not be deterring smugglers. ADM Capital Foundation CEO Lisa Genasci commented that the foundation’s research “indicates Hong Kong has become a hub for organized wildlife smugglers, with consequences for the international reputation of our city as well as international biodiversity.”
Last year, Hong Kong’s legislature voted to end all ivory sales in the city by 2021 and raised the maximum penalty for illicit trade in endangered species to 10 million Hong Kong dollars (1.3 million USD) and 10 years of prison, as opposed to the old maximum penalty of 5 million Hong Kong dollars (637,000 USD) and 5 years in jail.
However, given Hong Kong’s history and reputation as a free market and a hub for international trade, local authorities may be facing significant pressure not to engage in regulating the commercial market for wildlife. In an interview given in August, Hong Kong’s Under Secretary for the Environment commented that the city was “serious about enforcement and prosecution” but has “to accept the reality that Hong Kong is a free port, and it offers a lot of opportunities for this kind of activity to happen.”