In November 2020, we published a blog entitled: Will Hong Kong Finally Recognise Wildlife Crime as Serious and Organized? nineteen months later, that question has finally been answered – Yes. 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).
Submitted by the Hon Elizabeth Quat, 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. It has provided a mandate to pursue wildlife criminals.
Looking forward, when shipping containers and air cargo loaded with contraband such as pangolin scales, shark fins, ivory tusks, rhino horns, are seized, robust investigations should now follow with sufficient evidence gathered to prosecute at the highest level. This approach, along with international co-operation is the only way wildlife trafficking can be detected, disrupted, dismantled and deterred. It’s the only way that the devastating impacts of the trade on biodiversity, communities and economies can be stopped.
The United Nations has repeatedly called on its member states to combat wildlife trafficking and Hong Kong should be commended for stepping up to the plate.
In 2015, Hong Kong’s administration was reluctant to acknowledge the city was a hub for wildlife trafficking. It didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence to conclude that wildlife crime was serious and organized. So what changed?
In response to unprecedented ivory trafficking and rapidly declining elephant populations over a decade, countries started to ban their domestic ivory trade, with the China and the USA making such a historic announcement in 2015. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had effectively banned the international trade in 1989.
Hong Kong’s previous administration – though not convinced on the question of organized gangs perpetrating wildlife trafficking, in turn steered a landmark piece of legislation phasing out the ivory trade and raising penalties for wildlife crimes. This was enacted in 2018.
Not surprisingly, in the run up to this policy change there was push back from ivory traders. In 2015, ADMCF initiated and convened Hong Kong’s Wildlife Trade Working Group (WTWG) providing a platform for the NGO community and local experts to display unity together with supporters and the local community. The Group provided data, evidence and statistics to support the government’s case in banning the domestic ivory trade. The Hon Elizabeth Quat, was an advocate and provided a voice of reason in the legislative council.
The movement to address ivory trafficking notably shone a light on the extent of overall wildlife trafficking in Hong Kong and the orgainzed and serious nature of these crimes, which covered a multitude of rare and endangered species. It stimulated in depth research by members of the WTWG of this illegal trade in Hong Kong. The research was eventually documented in “Trading Extinction – The Dark Side of Hong Kong’s Wildlife Trade”, released in 2019.
Meanwhile, sitting in a coffee shop in 2016, a (now retired) police officer with 30 years in Hong Kong’s force, a law professor, colleagues from ADMCF and WildAid, pondered the issue. Together, the police officer (Rod Diaz) and law professor (Amanda Whitfort) developed an Enhanced Enforcement Strategy proposing to incorporate wildlife crime offences (under the Endangered Species Protection Ordinance) into Schedule I of OSCO. Further advice from local legal professionals indicated that such a proposal was not only feasible, but that it was reasonable.
The strategy was taken to the government, but was met with little interest. Its focus instead was on the impending ivory ban. So started several years gathering data, statistics and evidence to make the case for the strategy.
In 2019 marking the release of ‘Trading in Extinction’, ADMCF held a seminar in Hong Kong hosted by Denis Chang’s Chambers and with speakers including the ex-secretary General of CITES, law experts including a QC from the UK and law professors from HK as well as a regional lead from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, further legal academics and a retired police officer. All provided compelling views and evidence that wildlife crimes should be treated as serious and organized.
Law maker Elizabeth Quat, was the only legislator to take an interest in the strategy and although supportive, highlighted the challenge of introducing such a move. Hong Kong had other priorities.
The WTWG however did not give up. In 2020, eighteen months after the group’s first research report, ADMCF, the University of Hong Kong and barristers from Denis Chang’s Chambers produced a White Paper documenting the case for and feasibility of bringing wildlife crime offences into OSCO. Ms Quat indicated that the time may now be right, she would submit a Members Bill proposing the policy change. This was a game changer.
The Bill was submitted early in 2020. ADMCF released an update of the original Trading in Extinction Report at this time, aptly entitled ‘Still Trading in Extinction’. The report showed that despite the 2018 increase in penalties, Hong Kong’s seizure had continue to increase – and the desired deterrence had not been achieved. The case for the OSCO amendment stood firm.
The Bill had its first reading in March followed by its second and third in August when it effectively passed into law. Without the tenacity of members of the WTWG and the foresight of Ms Quat, it is unlikely that Hong Kong would have made such a momentous decision.
Now the government has to follow through, and apply it.