Hong Kong’s free port status and its position as a global trade hub are having untold consequences for some of the world’s most endangered wildlife. Driven by demand from East Asia including China, whole or body parts of many threatened species (both marine and terrestrial) are being trafficked. This comes amid a growing trend in conspicuous consumption, a trend spurred on by the perverse relationship between rarity and value.
It’s estimated that the illegal wildlife trade is worth over US$23billion annually and has moved into the realm of transnational organised crime with poaching of iconic species such as rhinos and elephants reaching unprecedented levels. This trade is further believed to be tied to drugs, human trafficking and terrorist groups.
Hong Kong plays an important role in the global wildlife trade network. For example, at least 140 shark species are at risk of extinction and Hong Kong accounts for over 50% shark fin imports globally.
The live reef fishes fare no better, with over 50% of the trade globally going into and through Hong Kong. The endangered Napoleon Wrasse, as one example, is being illegally traded at such a rate that volumes of these fish for sale in China are estimated to be 25 times greater than the legal export quota of the main regional exporter, Indonesia.
Turning to land, reportedly 2009-2013 was the worst period for illegal ivory in over 25 years. In 2013, a historical record was attained with 50 tonnes of ivory seized globally. Of this, over 8 tonnes (a 30% increase from 2012) was seized in Hong Kong (AFCD).
It’s estimated that at least 25,000 elephants are being poached annually out of a global population of just 450,000. Rhinos also are in a dire state. Driven by demand mainly from China and Vietnam for its horn, these amazing creatures are being poached to extinction.
In South Africa where the largest populations exist, poaching has reached unprecedented levels- from 13 individuals in 2007 to 1215 in 2014. The global population has declined from over 500,000 at the turn of the century to just 29,000 today. If business continues as usual, extinction is clearly on the horizon.
From 2012 to 2013 there was a 250% fold increase in cases of smuggling endangered species into Hong Kong. This included ivory tusks, rhino horns, leopard skin, pangolins, dried seahorses – and this is likely the just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite its small size, Hong Kong is one of the world’s busiest air and shipping ports and is designed to be easy for traders to navigate. It’s also a jurisdiction where wildlife crime is not taken seriously, where penalties for trafficking endangered species are woefully low and not commensurate with the severity of the offence.
As a consequence, Hong Kong‘s free ports status means the city is clearly being used as a wildlife trafficking/trade hub, despite the government’s failure to acknowledge the situation.
Illegal trade is not the only concern. Much wildlife trade in Hong Kong is legal, but this does not mean it’s remotely sustainable. Many endangered species have yet to fall under the auspices of the UN Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is the basis for Hong Kong’s wildlife trade legislation. Unlike many countries, Hong Kong tends to play it safe, doing only the bare minimum and using CITES as a standard. In reality, it could do much more to regulate this trade.
The above is just a snapshot. Many more endangered species than those mentioned here are being traded both illegally and legally through our city. Scientists believe that we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction. This is a crisis that‘s the direct result of human activities and one to which the wildlife trade is a significant contributor.
For a number of years ADMCF has been working on wildlife trade related issues, beginning with the shark fin trade and, more latterly, the live reef food fish trade. We recognise that the issues and solutions are not necessarily species specific, but part of a wider systemic problem.
As a result, we have commenced work more broadly on the wildlife trade. We are currently working with 17 NGOs and wildlife experts in Hong Kong, to establish a concerted effort to pressure the government for much needed change, as well as educate HK residents about why change is needed.
Written by Emily Botsford