Wildlife Warrior: Amanda Whitfort Of University Of Hong Kong
In 2015, a group of NGOs and wildlife experts joined forces to establish the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group and together fight the illegal trafficking of wildlife and animal products through Hong Kong. We met six members of the group, including Amanda Whitfort, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, to learn more about the criminal trade and how it can be stopped. Here, Whitfort discusses how Hong Kong's legal system can better combat this cruel trade.
How did you get involved in fighting wildlife crime?
I’m an associate professor here in the faculty of law and I’ve been in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years, the vast majority of which I have been working at the University of Hong Kong. I have a particular interest in vulnerable groups and criminal law, so while my background as a prosecutor was in protecting children, my research as an academic has become about protecting vulnerable species.
I commenced my interest in animal law back in 2010 with a grant to look at animal cruelty. I produced a report with Dr Fiona Woodhouse from the SPCA on animal cruelty in Hong Kong in 2010 and since then I’ve started to look at wild animals as well.
The ivory ban passed earlier this year, which seems to be a huge step forward, and at the same time the government increased the maximum penalties for wildlife crime to a HK$10 million fine and 10 years’ imprisonment. This is obviously an improvement, but how do Hong Kong’s legal penalties now compare to other countries?
The maximum penalties are acceptable on a comparative level with other jurisdictions, but maximum penalties are just window dressing if they’re not applied. So my concern will be to see whether these maximum penalties start to be utilized within the sentencing of wildlife crime.
Not only did this amendment raise penalties, it allowed for wildlife crime to be categorized as indictable crime. Now, there’s two kinds of crimes—there’s summary offences and there’s indictable offences. Indictable offences can be tried not just in the magistracy, which is our lowest level of court, they can also be tried in the district court and in the court of first instance. So for the first time, it has become jurisdictionally possible to take a wildlife offence and place it within the district court or the court of first instance.
What I would really like to see is a change from the very paltry sentences that have been given out routinely for wildlife crime over the last five years. For example, there has been a case recently in the magistracy where a rhino horn trader who had three pieces of rhino horn—from the weight recorded and the pictures, I would think about three or four rhinos would have died for those horns to have been smuggled.
See also: 7 Hong Kong Eco-Warriors Who Are Saving The Planet
And he was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. Now I find that extraordinary, for a court to think that’s an acceptable level of sentencing. For an animal that is critically endangered and for a product, let’s not forget, that is worth more than platinum.
I do not understand how dangerous drugs can be treated as a serious offence in Hong Kong, yet wildlife derivatives that are also illegally traded here and in many cases are worth much more than dangerous drugs, are not treated with any kind of seriousness.
I don’t think this is lack of caring by the sentencing judge—I think it’s lack of understanding. The only reasoning that I can conclude from this is that judges simply don’t understand the situation because they’re not being presented with the scientific evidence to establish what harms have resulted from these wildlife crimes.
With that in mind, I started a project two years ago with the Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens, with Dr. Gary Ades, and Gary and I partnered to produce wildlife trade impact statements for 33 of the most traded species through Hong Kong. These are not generally mega fauna.
People believe that the wildlife trade is about the charismatic mega fauna: tigers, rhino, elephant. And of course derivatives of those animals are traded, but the vast majority of wildlife crime is in much smaller species because they are live traded for the pet trade, food trade and traditional Chinese medicine. So I’m talking mainly about amphibians and birds. And of course the world’s most traded mammal, the pangolin.
Other activists are calling for wildlife crime to be moved to schedule one of the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance (OSCO). Why is that important?
It’s important that not only we have proper sentencing for wildlife crime that is commensurate with the criminality of the offence, it’s important that we start to recognize that wildlife crime is organised and serious crime. Wildlife crime is generally the purview of larger international gangs, which may involve local gangs in the smuggling [of species and products] through Hong Kong.
When a crime is classified as organised and serious crime, you have much greater investigative power. You have the power to discover information about the targets so you have the power to require them to answer questions in relation to their activities, you have the power to freeze assets, and later when you come to court, you have the power to forfeit those assets.
That obviously is a much more powerful set of weaponry against a set of crime than the normal weaponry that relates to crimes that aren't categorised as organised and serious. In my view, to take wildlife crime seriously within Hong Kong, we should be classifying our Cap 586 offences as organised and serious crime by putting them in schedule one of OSCO. That will take a legislative amendment.
Do you have faith that will happen?
I don’t see particular interest in that happening and I find that very disappointing.
Do you know where it’s being stalled?
I think it’s being stalled within the administration that is not prepared to accept that there is evidence that organised crime is taking place. It’s taken quite some time for the Hong Kong government to accept that we’re a wildlife trading hub, so to move beyond that and recognise wildlife crime as serious crime that involves organised criminal gangs perhaps may take a greater change in mind. But I’d like to think that there will be some eventual movement on this.
See also: These Activists Are Fighting To Stop Illegal Wildlife Trafficking In Hong Kong