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Saturday, Feb 24, 2024

Hong Kong must get tough on poachers. Its biodiversity matters globally

Hong Kong must get tough on poachers. Its biodiversity matters globally

Hong Kong is the last stronghold for critically endangered species such as the golden coin turtle; losing them is tantamount to a global extinction. It’s time for stiffer enforcement and penalties.
When residents of Hong Kong think about poaching, they typically conjure up images of slain elephants and rhinos, shot for their tusks and horns. The near-extinction of these species in far-flung corners of the planet is a familiar fact for most of us.

What may not be so familiar is the poaching crisis in our backyard. Hong Kong is facing a pandemic of poachers: hunters preying on wildlife in the country parks, seeking to profit from our biodiversity.

The risk of extinction is also with us. Hong Kong is the last stronghold for the survival of several species on the brink of extinction. The big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) and golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata) – also known as the Chinese three-striped box turtle – are both critically endangered and popular poaching targets.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, global populations of these turtles have fallen by over 90 per cent and 95 per cent respectively over the past three generations. Local researchers estimate that Hong Kong’s populations will disappear within the next three to five years if poaching continues at current rates.

Many other species are also at risk of being trafficked and sold as pets or for food. Even those destined for the pet trade may die before or soon after their sale due to the circumstances around their capture, stress and the lack of specialised care.

In Hong Kong, the illegal taking of wild animals is regulated by the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance and Country Parks Ordinance. The maximum penalties of one year in jail and a HK$100,000 (US$12,740) fine are not a sufficient deterrence for poachers, given the market value of the targeted species.

Penalties are higher under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance – a maximum of 10 years in jail and a HK$10 million fine. But they apply only to the illegal possession of species regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and do not cover all poached animals. As such, it is not a remedy.

Indeed, efforts to combat local poaching, including patrolling, surveillance cameras and intermittent law enforcement operations, have so far failed to stop the problem.

Between 2018 and 2022, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) found over 760 animal traps while patrolling. A turtle poacher may earn tens of thousands of dollars from each animal sold.

The low risk of arrest and even lower chances of facing a punitive penalty against extremely high rewards have allowed the situation to fester, leaving Hong Kong’s wildlife in a precarious situation.

In contrast, offenders involved in the illegal felling of incense trees for agarwood are routinely targeted, arrested and charged with the criminal offences of theft, damage, possession of offensive weapons, etc.

Where the criminals are organised, the police have successfully applied for the enhancement of their sentences under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance. Custodial sentences are not uncommon and have reached over four and a half years.

The taking of wild animals, however, cannot be considered theft. Consequently, deterrence is left to the enforcement of outdated laws by a department arguably not equipped to deal with tracking and arresting potentially dangerous poachers in remote areas in the dead of night.

The AFCD is doing commendable work with NGOs to restore the local population of golden coin turtles through conservation breeding. But these animals cannot be released unless the organised poaching gangs and online trade groups are deterred and dismantled.

It is time for the government to take steps to update the policies, legislation and protocols that address poaching in Hong Kong. We need active and consistent interdepartmental collaboration in the investigation and enforcement of poaching and wildlife trading. We must ensure the legal loopholes are closed and the penalties are severe enough to act as a deterrent.

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted at the COP15 UN Convention on Biological Diversity last December calls for urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. It is crucial that we take immediate action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in our own backyard. Not just for ourselves, but because Hong Kong’s biodiversity has global significance.
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