Disappearing Widllife

Perhaps it is because I am a six-time grandfather already, and expect to add to that score when my two teenage children marry in their turn. Or perhaps it is because a friend recently asked me to be godfather to his baby daughter, who with an average lifespan can expect to live well into the next century. Either way, I have begun to give more thought as to the kind of world we will bequeath to future generations.

I think we are all familiar (American friends excluded) with the science on climate change, so I won’t dwell there. Similarly with the horror of plastic accumulation starting to clog up our oceans and enter the piscatorial food chain.

But one aspect I had not really focussed on up to now was what humankind has done, and is doing, to the other species who share our world. No-one could read Y N Harari’s best-selling book Sapiens without coming away with a deep sense of unease about the way we factory farm chickens, cows and other creatures on an industrial scale to feed humans without regard to the animals’ own circumstances. Our bellies are full of tender beef, but the calf never meets its mother. One doesn’t need to be of a particularly religious bent to wonder at the ethical propriety of this.

And so to the RTHK radio discussion last week of Hong Kong’s role in wildlife trafficking. Our customs officers recently seized more than $60 million worth of elephant tusks and pangolin scales that arrived in a shipment from Africa. It was the biggest ever seizure of pangolin scales. Although the cargo originated in Togo, the pangolins themselves probably came from other countries in the continent. You may wonder why we had to send to Africa for pangolin scales: the brutal truth is because mankind has already killed many of the pangolins here in Asia.

There were over one thousand elephant tusks, which even the poorest maths students can calculate means over five hundred elephants must have been slaughtered. Step by step we are driving myriad species to the brink of extinction.

It is not suggested Hong Kong was the final destination for most of the contraband cargo. Rather we are a link in the logistics chain because of our efficient port and airport. Reports indicate the cargo may have been destined for Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. All dealing in ivory will be banned here starting from 2021, and the provenance of existing stocks is subject to scrutiny. (Trade is already banned in the mainland). Some of our Traditional Chinese Medicine shops here stock pangolin products, but it is unlikely local people are a major consumer. The same cannot be said for our many retail-driven visitors.

Hong Kong’s young people seem to be more sensitive than the older generation to the case for better protection of the environment, including fauna and flora. Many wedding couples specify they do not want shark fin soup served at the celebratory banquet, for example, and withstand the frowns of older relatives. Many of our higher class hotels have responded by removing the dish from the menu.

One of the most startling facts to emerge from the radio programme is that according to the United Nations, wildlife and forest crime comprises the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide after arms, drugs and human trafficking, and frequently links with other forms of serious crime such as fraud, money laundering, and corruption. INTERPOL and UNEP now estimate that natural resources worth as much as USD 91 billion to USD 258 billion annually are being stolen by criminals, depriving countries of future revenues and development opportunities. This crime sector is growing at 2 – 3 times the pace of the global economy.

Hong Kong has robust legislation to deal with illegal activities in these matters, in the form of the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (Cap 455) which empowers law enforcement agencies, inter alia, to go after the profits of organised crime, which represents a meaningful deterrent. A schedule to the Ordinance sets out the areas to which it applies. Included are the common law crimes of murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, plus offences under eight specific ordinances including Dangerous Drugs, Gambling, Societies and so one.

Nobody would argue that any of these laws should be dropped from the schedule, but the glaring omission from the list is obviously trade in endangered species.

Responsibility in Hong Kong for dealing with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rests with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. When Customs and Excise seize unlawful products they refer the matter here. There is also apparently a role for the Environment Protection Department. I mean no disrespect to either AFCD or EPD but they are not top of mind when one considers who is best able to tackle organised crime. That must surely be the police.

The fact that trade in endangered species is not regarded as a serious crime probably explains why nobody is being prosecuted for the 2017 record seizure.

This is not good enough. As a community we are better than this, we owe it to ourselves to do better than this. And most of all we owe it to our grandchildren.