In an unprecedented move to combat wildlife trafficking, Hong Kong’s lawmakers voted this week in favor of an amendment Bill that means certain wildlife offenses, will for the first time, be treated as serious and organized crimes.
The Bill incorporates wildlife crime offenses into Hong Kong’s Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance (Cap. 455), providing additional and appropriate powers to local law enforcement, as well as providing a clear mandate to deter, detect, disrupt, and dismantle criminal networks responsible for wildlife trafficking.
The action allows for a refocusing of investigations and prosecutions, from the previous approach of prosecuting carriers and mules, to instead target the organized criminals and networks behind the crimes. The same networks involved in wildlife trafficking have been linked by leading experts, to human, weapon, and drug trafficking, underscoring the serious and organized nature of this criminality.
“The fight against wildlife crime is an immense challenge, and by taking this bold move to amend its laws, Hong Kong is not only showing global leadership, but is signaling that we can no longer stand by and let wildlife traffickers continue to exploit our city, devastate wildlife populations, and steal local natural resources that impact local communities and national economies worldwide,” Lisa Genasci, CEO of the ADM Capital Foundation, an environmental organization with a dedicated wildlife trade program, said in a statement.
The global community has repeatedly called on countries to strengthen wildlife crime legislation. As recently as July 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to combat wildlife trafficking, recognizing the associated economic, social, and environmental impacts.
In the midst of a biodiversity crisis, in large part driven by the illegal wildlife trade, and exacerbated by climate change, which has altered habitats, Hong Kong has become a hub for these criminal activities. Authorities seized929 metric tons (MT) of rare and endangered wildlife in 1,680 seizures from 2018 to 2020.
“Hong Kong’s recent seizures continue a decade-long upward trend that has seen the decimation of multiple species including rhino, elephant, and pangolin populations globally, while the perpetrators go free,” said Amanda Whitfort, Associate professor of Law at Hong Kong University. “The enhanced investigative and punitive powers that will now be accessible to those local enforcement authorities tasked with combatting wildlife crime is a potential game changer, not just for Hong Kong, but regionally. It should, if applied, result in much needed deterrence.”
Recent record-breaking seizures in Hong Kong include; 82kg of rhino horn, equivalent to 31 black rhinos or 14 white rhinos, and 8.3MT pangolin scales seized with 2.1MT ivory, equivalent to 13,800 pangolins and 200 elephants (2019).
Despite their scale, there have been no known prosecutions relating to these record seizures, highlighting how critical this Bill is to Hong Kong’s enforcement authorities.
“The nature of the illegal wildlife trade in itself is a clear expression of pre-meditated acts, carefully orchestrated operations carried out by global seasoned organized syndicates,” stated Quat, further noting that they should be treated as such by the government and justice system.
The passage of this Bill follows an increase in penalties for wildlife trafficking in 2018, that to date, had not deterred traffickers because the majority that have been prosecuted are not the ‘masterminds’ behind the crimes.
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