City-wide street art coupled with Augmented Reality brings trafficked animals to life – in a campaign to stop wildlife traffickers using our city
In the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, Hong Kong authorities seized a record breaking 991 metric tonnes (MT) of rare and endangered wildlife across 2,113 seizures between 2017-2020.
On August 18th Hong Kong’s lawmakers decisively voted in favour of a Members Bill to add wildlife crime offences to Hong Kong’ Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance (OSCO).The Bill is a significant move in the fight against wildlife crime, not just for Hong Kong, but regionally and globally.
It means that instead of its historic focus on prosecuting the low-level ‘mules’ caught red handed carrying wildlife contraband, the government has provided its enforcement agencies access to enhanced powers to investigate, prosecute, confiscate proceeds and sentence the organized syndicates and ‘masterminds’ behind the crimes.
Our small city holds a disproportionate role in the global illicit wildlife trade. Wildlife seized in 2018 and 2019 surpassed all annual totals for the preceding decade (excluding 2015). Figures indicate a shift in trade dynamics with ivory in decline, pangolins remaining at devastatingly high levels and a worrying diversification of other endangered species.
While the scale of the challenge is immense, Hong Kong is uniquely situated to play an outsized role in detecting, deterring, disrupting and dismantling the syndicates operating in and through the city. It is vital that decisive and incisive action is taken to change our city from being a hub for the illegal wildlife trade to become a global leader in the fight against it. Otherwise, as scientists warn, we will continue to inflict irreversible damage on the world’s biodiversity, and suffer the impacts long into the future.
How long has wildlife crimes under OSCO been discussed for?
2016 to present.
What could an ivory seizure look like under OSCO?
OSCO investigations of large scale ivory cases, wherein large sums of money or numerous parties have been involved in the trafficking, would provide investigators with a far more extensive array of tools and powers to delve into many more aspects of the operation than may be employed otherwise. In cases related to narcotics trafficking, law enforcement seize items including shipping documents, bank statements, computers, mobile phones, banking security authentication tokens, signed cheques and cash. They are permitted to seize and confiscate the proceeds of the crime.
What countries have similar laws to OSCO?
Hong Kong has had an ordinance to address organised crime in the city since 1991. However, it did not specify wildlife crimes under its list of scheduled offences. Since the Amendment Bill of 2021, any crimes involving species regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) may now be investigated with a more expansive array of powers.
There are 147 nations that are party to the United Nations Treaty on Organized Crime, the most widely adopted international instrument in effect to combat transnational organized crime. Signatories commit themselves to taking measures against transnational organized crime, including the creation of domestic criminal offences against participation in an organized criminal group, money laundering, corruption and obstruction of justice, among others. Whilst many nations have adopted such measures, enforcement remains a key barrier to clamping down on organised crime.
What is the highest possible level of punishment from OSCO?
In relation to financial crimes, which are often committed in combination with wildlife crimes, a sentence of up to 10 years can be handed down. Importantly, OSCO now enables the appropriate authorities to apply a greater number of powers in their investigations as well as seizing the proceeds of the crime. These are vital to deterring organised criminals, as they have been motivated by the relatively low risk and high financial rewards of trafficking wildlife.
What species would be covered under OSCO?
All species regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).
When will OSCO be implemented?
It came into effect on the 27th August 2021.
Who implements OSCO?
Departments under the Security Bureau, namely the Hong Kong Police Force and Customs & Excise, are charged with primary enforcement of OSCO. The Secretary for Justice may also authorise others. With the inclusion of wildlife crimes under Schedule 1 of OSCO, the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD) may also be involved in OSCO cases.
Why has it taken so long for a positive vote for OSCO?
It took numerous years to gather incontrovertible evidence on the state of Hong Kong’s illegal wildlife. Perhaps the most comprehensive and complete examination was published in 2018, in the report ‘Trading in Extinction: The Dark Side of Hong Kong’s Wildlife Trade’, detailing and quantifying the volume, value and more in relation to wildlife trafficking. We also ran a series of seminars, moots and engaged in direct discussions with Government officials to raise awareness of the scale and pervasiveness of wildlife trafficking in the city. They started to openly describe it as such during hearings convened by the LegCo Panel on Environmental Affairs in 2021. All departments invited to express their views at that time fully supported the OSCO Amendment Bill.
Between 2018-2019, Hong Kong’s authorities seized hundreds of tonnes of ‘threatened’ wildlife, the majority of which are at
risk of extinction. Species and products encountered included (but not limited to) tiger bones, Hawksbill sea turtle shell bracelets, ivory figurines, rhino horns, shark fins, dried seahorses, live Ploughshare tortoises, European eels and Humphead wrasses.
Pangolins, unfortunately best known as the “most trafficked mammal in the world, remain a staple of Hong Kong’s illegal wildlife trade. In 2018 and 2019, scales and carcasses equating to as many as 50,200 pangolins were seized, equivalent to a pangolin being poached every 21 minutes for the Hong Kong trade.
In the last three years, Hong Kong authorities seized over 929 metric tonnes (MT) of wildlife valued at over HK$358 million. Including a record breaking seizure of ivory (7.2MT) = 1,690 Elephants (2017)
Wild populations of African grey parrots have been greatly reduced due to the exotic pet trade and destruction and fragmentation of their habitat. It is estimated that the populations have decreased by over 50 per cent in many areas.
Volumes of wildlife seized in 2018 and 2019 surpassed all annual totals for the preceding decade (excluding 2015). Figures indicate a shift in trade dynamics with ivory in decline, pangolins (a staple of Hong Kong traffickers) remaining at devastatingly high levels and a worrying diversification of other endangered species in trade.
Wildlife crime poses an immense challenge to the international community. By taking the bold move to move wildlife trafficking offences under OSCO, Hong Kong is not only showing global leadership, but is signalling that we will no longer stand by and let wildlife traffickers exploit our city, devastate wildlife populations and steal natural resources that impact local communities and national economies worldwide.
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