Hong Kong customs seized a record 40 kg of rhino horns worth around US$1 million from Johannesburg en route to Vietnam, the latest bust authorities tackling the rising volume of endangered wildlife product trafficked through the Chinese territory.
The seizure came less than a month after customs bust a massive smuggling operation from Africa, seizing a record quantity of pangolin scales, along with more than 1,000 ivory tusks.
Customs said the rhino horns were found in two check-in carton boxes, destined for Ho Chi Minh City. Two men were arrested, they said in a statement, adding it was a record haul for airline passengers.
“It’s shocking to us that today’s 40 kg rhino horn seizure equates to about 20% of all rhino horn seized in Hong Kong from 2013 to the end of October 2018,” conservation group WildAid said.
The former British colony on China’s southern coast is one of the world’s primary wildlife trafficking transit points, supplying an array of wildlife products including shark’s fin and rhino horn across Asia and particularly mainland China.
Much of the trade supplies the traditional Chinese medicine sector. Highly valued rhino horn for instance, is believed to treat issues from cancer to clearing toxins and curing hangovers.
The city remains a global blackspot with organised criminal gangs taking advantage of the special administrative region’s geographic location, logistics network and relatively lax enforcement.
All species of rhino are listed under CITES Appendix 1 which means it is illegal to trade them internationally. There are less than 29,000 rhinos living in the wild and captivity.
China has made significant strides in wildlife protection in recent years but has formidable profit driven wildlife business interests.
After pressure from some breeders, China’s State Council said in October it would replace a 1993 ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhino horn, opening exceptions under “special circumstances”, including medical research.
In November, Beijing postponed the move following widespread protest from conservation groups.
Hong Kong authorities last year raised penalties for smuggling endangered species to a maximum fine of HK$10 million and a 10 year prison sentence. Conservation groups say wildlife crime is treated less seriously with prosecutions paltry.
ADM Capital Foundation, which focuses on environmental challenges across Asia, wrote in a January report wildlife trafficking should be incorporated under Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance (OSCO).
Doing so would provide “a powerful disincentive to wildlife criminals and importantly, prevent reinvestment of profits into further criminal activities,” the report said.