Hong Kong needs stricter laws to fight wildlife crime, researchers say

Scales of pangolins are spread on a table form a blue and pink bag
Scales of pangolins Chinese customs officials seized on a ship in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China November 29, 2017, photo: Reuters/Stringer

Hong Kong is growing as a wildlife smuggling hub because its laws are not strong enough to fight organized crime running the wildlife trade, researchers said Friday.

With its busy port and transport links, Hong Kong is a major transit point for illegal parts of endangered animals like elephants, rhinos and pangolins. Most of the animal parts are meant for consumers in mainland China.

Record seizures have been made in recent years. But Hong Kong University researchers said that prosecutions so far have been too mild.

The two-year study, authored by Amanda Whitfort, a professor at the law faculty, and Fiona Woodhouse from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, highlighted major shortcomings in Hong Kong’s battle against the multi-million dollar wildlife trade.

The biggest problem, they wrote, was that wildlife smuggling was not categorized as seriously as illegal drugs or human trafficking.

In the past seven years, Hong Kong’s customs department has seized over HK$767 million ($99 million) in trafficked wildlife animals, including 22 tonnes of ivory, 70 tonnes of pangolin and 66 tonnes of other endangered species, the report noted.

But while seizures are up, the number of prosecutions remains low.

Compared with other overseas jurisdictions, Hong Kong’s sentences have been mild “with imprisonment rare and most offenders fined less than 10 percent of the value of the goods they have smuggled” researchers said.

In May 2018, the maximum penalty for smuggling endangered species was increased to ten years imprisonment and a HK$10 million fine. But researchers said some sentencing terms still fall below international standards.

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