Hong Kong customs have seized a record 40kg of rhino horns worth around $1m that were on their way from South Africa to Vietnam, the latest bust for authorities trying to crack down on the illegal trade of endangered species through the Chinese territory.
The seizure on Thursday at Hong Kong International Airport came less than one month after customs uncovered a massive smuggling operation from Africa, seizing a record quantity of pangolin scales, along with more than 1,000 ivory tusks.
The rhino horns were found in two boxes checked in for Ho Chi Minh City, the authorities said in a statement. Two male passengers travelling from Johannesburg, aged 28 and 33, were arrested by customs officers at the airport.
“It’s shocking to us that today’s 40kg rhino horn seizure equates to about 20 percent of the total amount of rhino horn seized in Hong Kong from 2013 to the end of October 2019,” conservation group WildAid said.
The former British colony on China’s southern coast is one of the world’s primary transit points for the illegal wildlife trade, including shark fin and rhino horn, that are trafficked across Asia and mainland China, often to supply the traditional Chinese medicine sector.
Hong Kong remains a global black spot, 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 Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which means trade in them is banned. There are fewer than 29,000 rhinos alive in the wild and in captivity, according to conservationists’ figures.
China has made significant strides in wildlife protection in recent years, but it also has formidable profit-driven wildlife business interests.
After pressure from some breeders, China’s State Council said in October that it would replace a 1993 ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhino horn, opening up exceptions under “special circumstances”, including medical research.
But, in November, Beijing was forced to drop the plan following widespread protest from conservation groups.
Hong Kong authorities last year raised penalties for smuggling endangered species to a maximum fine of HK$10m ($1.27m) and a 10-year prison sentence. However, conservation groups say wildlife crime is treated less seriously, with few prosecutions.
ADM Capital Foundation, which focuses on environmental challenges across Asia, wrote in a January report that wildlife trafficking should be incorporated into Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance.
Doing so would provide “a powerful disincentive to wildlife criminals, and importantly, would prevent reinvestment of profits into further criminal activities”, the report said.