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 Gary Ades, head of fauna at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, to learn more about the criminal trade and how it can be stopped. Here, Ades discusses the horrifying trade of live animals, particularly tortoises and turtles, for the pet trade.
How did you get involved in fighting wildlife crime? Kadoorie Farm was the first government-sanctioned private rescue centre. We opened that centre in 1994 and the rescue centre was originally intended to deal with rescuing and rehabilitating native species—like birds of prey hitting event wires and getting injured. But as we built our relationship with the government, we started getting everything that’s confiscated at the airport. We’ve had about 48,000 animals go through the rescue centre and the majority of those are reptiles—especially turtles.
We saw the beginnings of the Asian turtle crisis, when the conservation community started to notice that traders were scooping up turtles everywhere in southeast Asia and supplying them to more affluent societies in southern China.
Why turtles and tortoises? Interestingly, a lot of species that we were dealing with in the early 2000s were all going to food markets in huge numbers. Now, if we see them in trade, they’re highly sought-after as pets.
Once you’ve rescued an animal, what role does Kadoorie Farm play? In most cases you cannot repatriate animals because—unless they are endemic to a certain country or a very particular region—the country will not admit that the animals could have gotten through customs. There’s lots of politics involved.
Whenever you get something a bit unusual, we contact experts who we know now and say “we’ve got a few of these animals and we know they’re quite special but we can’t repatriate them—what’s the best option?” That’s a role we still play for the government—we investigate what to do next while the government gets on with the investigation and the legalities.
We’re always looking for zoos and wildlife parks with accreditation that work with the same species [of animal that we’ve rescued]. On top of that, we look for zoos and facilities that have a contact with the animal’s country of origin.
We have just worked on the repatriation of some pig-nosed turtles to Indonesia. They’re endemic to an area of West Papua, where we released them. This is the third operation we’ve done like that and we’ve worked out a formula. We work with the Hong Kong government and encourage them to pursue repatriation. We also work with an NGO on the ground in Indonesia, in this instance, we worked with International Animal Rescue.
Having another NGO helps because when the Indonesian government gets all these animals, they don’t know what to do with them, so their first reaction would be to say “we don’t want to take these animals back because the pressure is on us to do something with them.” But when there’s an NGO to help take the animals to the next stage, I think they feel more comfortable about that repatriation.
Other activists have talked about the importance of moving wildlife crime to schedule one of the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance—why is that so important? The first report on wildlife crime we produced [in 2015] already touched on this. It's crucial. This is the only way you’re going to start to make a dent—not just in a small part of the chain, but to hit the kingpins and the people who are organising all of this.
One cost that nobody ever talks about and the courts never discuss but it’s sometimes huge is the cost that the criminal has just passed on to the conservationists and the government. Those 300 endangered turtles—what happens to them? They probably don’t even talk about that in the courts, but the 300 animals need to be fed, they need to be cared for, there might need to be veterinary care, if they’re tropical species they need heating through the winter, they’ve often got water circulation systems going because they need to live in freshwater if they’re freshwater turtles.
Not to mention the costs with shipping the animal back to a centre overseas as well.
How else are you working to fight the illegal trade in wildlife into and through Hong Kong? We are always available to Customs and Excise Department and Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and we sometimes get calls from them when they open a box filled with animals and they don’t know what they are. They take a photograph, send it to us and we quickly ID the animals for them.
We are also working with [lawyer and associate professor at the University of Hong Kong] Amanda Whitfort to make briefing documents for the legal profession. I think some criminals get off because there’s not enough information [provided to judges and lawyers] to support how endangered an animal is or what’s so important about a particular animal found in someone's luggage. How can we expect judges to hand down a higher penalty or custodial sentence [if they don't understand the true value of these animals]?
One of my staff has been checking the internet in China, finding illegal sales of animals and recording how much they're selling for. We provide that information and information about populations of these species in the wild for these briefing packs for members of the legal profession.