On Aug 18, a major change took place in Hong Kong without much fanfare. The world should take note, as it could have a huge impact on fighting crime.

Wildlife crimes can now be treated among the most serious crimes in Hong Kong. The city’s legislature incorporated wildlife crimes, including trafficking, into the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance, primary legislation that empowers investigation into organized crimes, permits the confiscation of the proceeds of those crimes, and allows heavy sentencing.

This was a major move because Hong Kong had been reticent to acknowledge that wildlife traffickers use the city as a strategic hub to serve illicit markets in Asia.

The traditional way of dealing with the problem was for the authorities to make seizures of endangered species from time to time to show these crimes were not being ignored.

However, without the ability to use the right investigatory tools for organized crimes, and the determination to root out crime syndicates managed by powerful criminals that includes trafficking endangered wildlife, they will remain free to continue with criminal activities year after year.

These criminals are essentially agnostic in what they traffic. Often, endangered species are relatively low-risk contraband that provides additional profit to running drugs and arms. The criminals neither care about species extinction, which is irreversible, nor the negative effect on ecosystems.

That’s why the OSCO needed to be amended to include wildlife. Wildlife crimes need to be subject to the same investigative powers as other organized and serious crimes.

Yet that wasn’t enough because the illegal trade continues unabated, as attested by the volumes and range of species trafficked, as well as multiple record-breaking seizures of wildlife, including totoaba fish maws, pangolin scales, shark fins and rhino horns.

Hong Kong’s amendment of OSCO (Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance) means that unlike many jurisdictions worldwide, the city is not just moving in the right direction but is squarely on the right track. It has assumed a leadership position, and it is aligned with the Chinese mainland, where the punishment for wildlife trafficking could be life imprisonment

Evidenced by hundreds of court observations, those who got caught in wildlife trafficking were low-paid individuals, while their masters remained beyond the reach of the law. There were always other people in dire circumstances who were willing to do the bidding of gangs.

Hong Kong’s investigations had repeatedly fallen short of providing sufficient evidence for prosecution even in the most significant seizures, such as 1,005 metric tons of Malagasy rosewood in 2015; 7.2 tons of ivory, equivalent to 1,690 elephants, in 2017; 82 kilograms of rhino horn, equivalent to 31 black rhinos, and 8.3 tons of pangolin scales seized with 2.1 tons of ivory, equating to 13,800 pangolins and 200 elephants in 2019. With the more-powerful investigatory tools in the OSCO, the authorities, if they are committed, should do better in collecting evidence to secure convictions.

The United Nations has repeatedly called on countries to strengthen wildlife crime legislation. In May, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice called for “strengthening legislation, international cooperation, capacity-building, criminal justice responses and law enforcement efforts aimed at, inter alia, dealing with transnational organized crime, corruption and money laundering linked to (environmental (including wildlife)) crimes, and illicit financial flows derived from such crimes, while acknowledging the need to deprive criminals of proceeds of crime”.

In July, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all countries to combat wildlife trafficking, recognizing the associated economic, social, and environmental impacts. This resolution urges countries to take decisive steps to prevent, combat and eradicate the illegal trade in wildlife, including strengthening local legislation. In particular, it encourages states to make trafficking in protected species of wild fauna and flora involving organized criminal groups a serious crime.

Hong Kong’s amendment of the OSCO means that unlike many jurisdictions worldwide, the city is not just moving in the right direction but is squarely on the right track. It has assumed a leadership position, and it is aligned with the Chinese mainland, where the punishment for wildlife trafficking could be life imprisonment.

Enforcement authorities responsible for implementing wildlife crime now have access to the OSCO’s strong powers. They now need to demonstrate their commitment to act. They must not continue the limited focus on“pawns”, “mules” and “small fries” and go after the bosses and gangs. This is not a given, as enforcement officers may elect not to use the stronger OSCO powers now at their disposal.

Hong Kong already works with the mainland authorities on dealing with cross-border crimes. The mainland has made biodiversity preservation one of its main policy planks. There will be new targets and regulations, which can be mirrored in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, the UN directives enable Hong Kong and the mainland to work with regional neighbors, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, to stop wildlife trafficking through enhanced cooperation. The passage of the amended OSCO should already be a signal to criminals that Hong Kong has toughened its laws in this area.

Hong Kong’s new secretary for security, Chris Tang Ping-keung, a seasoned policeman who commands all the city’s disciplinary forces, together with the new commissioner of police, Raymond Siu Chak-yee, can now bring forward a first case to show the world they mean business in catching wildlife traffickers.

Sophie le Clue is the environmental protection director of ADM Capital Foundation.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist of the Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a board member of the Carbon Disclosure Project Worldwide, London.

The article has appeared on China Daily