Hong Kong (AFP) Aug 29, 2005
The newcomers to a quiet rural Hong Kong community told neighbours they were just moving boxes of frozen chicken wings.
A police raid revealed otherwise -- a shipment of 2,000 scaly anteaters that environmentalists see as further evidence that Hong Kong has become a centre for the smuggling of rare species to China.
"In my opinion, Hong Kong is one of the best places for smuggling," said Samuel Lee, senior programme officer at TRAFFIC East Asia, a wildlife trade monitoring network that is a joint project of the WWF and The World Conservation Union.
The contraband scaly anteaters, known as pangolins, were discovered in the quiet village of Hoi Ha Wan, home to just 30 households on a sheltered bay located north of the vast Sai Kung West Country Park.
Residents first thought the newcomers were a group of tourists visiting the area with snorkelling enthusiasts and divers.
"We once saw six lorries here and a group of 30 people around plus a few speeds boats on the beach. Sometimes they would be wheeling things along the footpath, unloading up to 200 boxes at a time," said Nicola Newbery, a local resident.
"They told us they were just frozen chicken wings."
But when the group kept coming back, locals became suspicious and alerted police.
Officers rushed to the beachfront and found that these were no tourists but wildlife smugglers trying to unload 100 tightly packed parcels containing about 2,000 pangolins -- descaled, frozen and individually vacuum-packed.
Police caught three men on suspicion of smuggling a protected species of wildlife.
"They were obviously for eating and obviously for Guangdong restaurants," just across the border from Hong Kong in southern China, Lee said.
Pangolins are a rare animal whose trade has been prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
To many Chinese, pangolins are highly valued as a culinary delicacy because of their reputed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.
"Chinese culture like to eat rare species. If someone advertises it and say it's rare, that would push up the price," Lee said. "People would eat it because it shows your social status. They are always served in business banquets or by the Chinese officials."
With pangolins and turtles already extinct in China, the animals have to come from elsewhere in Asia, Lee said.
"As there is such a huge demand in China, and Hong Kong is so close to China, this is a concern," Lee said.
The area around Sai Kung and Hoi Ha Wan, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from China, is ideal for smuggling, said Clarus Chu, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) marine conservation officer.
"A lot of boats are going in and out in that area. There's no way to check each boat. It's quite convenient and easy to go to China which is just north of the waters," he said.
The pangolins were just the latest case of smuggling to be discovered in the former British colony.
In May, customs officers foiled an attempt to smuggle into Hong Kong via Singapore 503 kilograms (1,107 pounds) of ivory tusk and 556 kilograms of sea turtle scales from Tanzania.
The most notable case happened in 2001 when Hong Kong authorities seized 10,000 live turtles kept in four 20-foot (six-metre) containers on board an incoming river trade vessel from the nearby Chinese enclave of Macau. Smugglers have also tried to move protected plant species.
Buddha's pines, which Chinese consider auspicious and are also in great demand in mainland China for landscaping, are constantly moved across the border by tree thieves, environmentalists say.
Conservationists are concerned at what they say is large-scale illegal felling of the lucky trees.
"We are really worried because doing it in such large scale will eventually cause the extinction of the species. They are cutting down the trees that have a few hundred years of history," said Lawrence Chau, senior manager for flora conservation at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. Only 1,000 Buddha's pines are estimated to remain in Hong Kong.
Chau said a majority of the shipments would go to China as demand has risen along with the growing wealth of the people there.
"Living standards of the people in China have improved a lot in the past 20 years. They now have great spending power," he said.
Chu said Hong Kong has fallen victim to what it is famous for, its free-port status.
"Most of the time, you don't have to declare tax and some people take advantage of that. You can report whatever you want in the shipment. It gives you incentive not to report real information," he added.
"This makes Hong Kong one of centres for smuggling as there is such a huge demand in China and it's so close to it." Chu said, adding that only a tiny proportion of smugglers are caught.
Chua, of Kadoorie Farm, says law enforcement agencies have other priorities.
"Do you think they would be worried about people smuggling drugs or firearms, or this? That's the reality," he said.
A spokesman for Hong Kong's agricultural department, which is responsible for protecting against endangered wildlife smuggling, conceded there is "a steady problem" but said authorities are trying to confront it.
"There have been big cases about smuggling of endangered species and we are concerned about it. We want to emphasize that we are working together with various departments to attack such crimes," the spokesman said.
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