The outbreak of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) that eventually turned into a worldwide pandemic was first reported from the South China Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, causing the Chinese government to review its wild animal protection legislation. Recently the decision of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress on a decree entitled “Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption, and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People,” was passed, strengthening the original wild animal protection laws and increasing the related penalties. Terrestrial Wild Animals with Important Ecological, Scientific and Social Values were in the grey area in the past; but now—whether artificially bred or reared—they will be fully protected.
Difficult law enforcement that allows offenders off the hook
Terrestrial Wild Animals with Important Ecological, Scientific and Social Values, such as Masked Palm Civet (Paguma larvata), Red Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) and some snake species, may not be uncommon in China. Due to their importance, catching them is not encouraged; however, in most regions there is no regulation on catching these species. Hence over-catching is common. The current legal amendment is certainly a step forward in the regulation of wildlife trade and consumption. The next challenge will be law enforcement.
In Hong Kong, the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance is rather comprehensive. All mammals—except shrews and rodents and wild boars; plus all wild birds, wild turtles, two butterfly species (Troides spp.), Burmese Python (Python bivittatus), Common Water Monitor (Varanus salvator) and three amphibians are all protected under the law. Any offender who catches, possesses or trades in the protected wild animals will face up to $100,000 in fines and a one-year sentence. This may seem prohibiting but considering the monetary value of Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) and Three-banded Box Turtle (Cuora trifasciata) are over $10,000 at present, plus the difficulty in law enforcement, it is still very attractive for people to catch these rare species in the wild and resell them for profit. In recent years, we can see stickers that say "turtle collection" in public, and the selling of the protected Hong Kong Newt (Paramesotriton hongkongensis) in Goldfish Market. This reflects the fact that the law is not prohibitive at all.
On the other hand, some rare species with market value are not protected under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance. A revealing example is the "extermination" case of Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) that aroused much discussion on the internet. The species is not legally protected locally but is under grade II protection in China. It has medicinal value and is often kept as a pet too. Its population is declining in many regions due to over-catching. In Hong Kong, the catching of it is not illegal. Even if you catch it inside a country park, you will only face a fine of less than $5,000 contrasts with up to $100,000 above, and a maximum one year of custody in prison.
"Exterminator" of gecko got away scot free
The person who "exterminated" gecko last year got away scot free, even though he was very high profile in his action. More recently, he even changed his web name and uploaded more photos of catching other wild animals on the internet. The existing law and enforcement fail to protect wild species. The reason is that the law was rather outdated, with the latest amendment around thirty years ago. The penalties are not prohibitive at all and some species that need protection are not on the list. Apart from Tokay Gecko, Bogadek’s Burrowing Lizard (Dibamus bogadeki), a species that may be endemic to Hong Kong, is only protected by law in China but not in Hong Kong.
Even with legal protection, effective enforcement is also a challenge. In the past few years, many cases of smuggled parrots were reported in the media. In fact, trade in most parrot species is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The rearing and possession of these species without a permit is illegal. Although many people claim that their parrot is bred domestically and not from the wild, it is very difficult to verify the source. Hong Kong is a hub of global trade. In the last year alone, there were at least three cases of parrot smuggling through Hong Kong. In the past there were also many cases of smuggling wild turtles and scales of Chinese Pangolin. We certainly need to strengthen our law and law enforcement. As China tightens its law, the wild animal resources in Hong Kong may become a target for illegal trade. It is indeed time to review our legal protection of wild animals in Hong Kong.