Image: Chloe Hatten
Wildlife Crime is Organised and Serious Crime
Wildlife crime is the fourth most lucrative black market in the world and has become part of the criminal portfolio of organised crime groups globally. The transnational nature of wildlife crime – the supplier is in the Congo or Peru, the buyer in Vietnam or China- means that these groups extend and operate between not only countries, but between continents.
In Mexico, using the methods and organisation of the country’s notorious drug cartels, wildlife smuggling cartels have emerged to control the extremely lucrative illegal trade in swim bladders from a large Mexican fish known as the totoaba. Considered highly beneficial to health in the Chinese market, dried totoaba fish bladders are currently valued at more than gold per gram.
Totoaba cartels control the fishing, transportation and smuggling of the bladders, operating via a combination of corruption and violence targeting law enforcement officials, business rivals, and uncooperative fishermen.
In Africa, militias responsible for massacres, mass rapes and the use of child soldiers are known to traffic ivory and pangolin.
A large part of the global rosewood trade is reliant on conflict timber.
In Asia, syndicates linked to human and dug trafficking and child prostitution are involved with the wildlife trade.
Illegal wildlife trade is responsible for the deaths of wildlife rangers, law enforcement officials and environmental activists who have been targeted for seeking to protect local biodiversity. In the past ten years, over 1,000 wildlife rangers in Africa have been killed in the line of duty, leaving their families without breadwinners.
The Role of Hong Kong SAR in Illegal Wildlife Trade
Species Victim Impact Statements are especially important in Hong Kong. Over the past 20 years, the growth of wildlife trade driven by rising incomes in Asia and China, has turned the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region into a primary global hub for the illegal wildlife trade.
Hong Kong is an international city with established international trade networks. Hong Kong’s geographic location is ideal for trade – it is a maritime gateway into Mainland China from South East Asia, Australasia and Africa.
Hong Kong International Airport is the world’s busiest for international cargo, transporting almost 5 million tons per year, to and from 470 destinations. It is also the world’ third busiest airport for international passenger traffic with passenger connections to 220 destinations, handling more than seventy million passengers annually..
However, the illegal wildlife trade has fully taken advantage of Hong Kong’s geographic location, global interconnectivity, and trading tradition. Despite its small size and population of just 7 million, Hong Kong has become not only a major importer and re-exporter of illegal wildlife and wildlife products, but a major consumer.
Customs seizures of wildlife products have grown so large in Hong Kong that they are measured in tons - over the past five years, almost 15,000 tons of elephant ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales were seized, equivalent to 3,000 dead elephants, 50,000 pangolin and 200 rhinos. Figures for live reptiles and birds are equally shocking. More than 20,000 live turtles and tortoises have been seized in the past 5 years. Hong Kong has also recorded the largest ever seizure of critically endangered rosewood, and it is thought that 20% of all of the world’s ivory seizures are made in Hong Kong.
The number of seizures in Hong Kong is increasing. But of even greater cause for concern is the estimation that only 10% of the wildlife shipments routed through Hong Kong are actually intercepted and seized.
To make matters worse, the legal system in Hong Kong has not caught up with the explosion of illegal wildlife trade and the role Hong Kong plays in it.
Despite being transnational and organised, wildlife crime is not a specified offence under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (OSCO) in Hong Kong’s legislation. This makes prosecutions of wildlife offences in Hong Kong very difficult.
The widely held view that wildlife crime is “victimless” and not serious, combined with a lack of easy access for prosecutors and judges to the scientific data necessary to properly evaluate the impact of wildlife crimes (link), the sentences handled down for wildlife crime in Hong Kong have been lenient and have failed to act as effective deterrents.
Stemming wildlife crime in Hong Kong would deal a major blow to global wildlife trafficking, and SVIS Initiative is making a crucial contribution – our species victim impact statements (SVIS) together with our training for enforcement authorities on their use, are already having an effect in Hong Kong courts, leading to increased sentences for wildlife crime.
Illegal wildlife trade is transnational and organised, and for SVIS Initiative to be fully effective, we make Species Victim Impact Statements available to judiciaries and law enforcement in all countries and territories affected by wildlife crime.