Hong Kong

The Pangolin Trade Explained: Situation in Hong Kong

Hong Kong
By Karen Zhang, on May 2, 2019

What is Hong Kong’s role in the illicit trade?

Hong Kong is a major transit hub for smuggled pangolins, serving as a gateway from African countries like Nigeria and Cameroon into mainland China. The number of seizures has greatly increased in the past six years. 

Hong Kong Customs has seized more than 26 tonnes of pangolin scales between 2018 and May 2019, more than three times that of 2017. Among them, 20 tonnes were found in four containers shipped from Nigeria.

How big is the estimated pangolin population? How many have been seized in recent years?

There are still some Chinese pangolins living elusively in the territory, with two reported sightings in 2017 and 2018. However, it’s very rare to see them in the wild.

In 2017, Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) Wild Animal Rescue Centre took in two Chinese pangolins with one injured in an attack by feral dogs. They were treated at the centre and released into the wild after recovery.

What is the major use of pangolins?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), processed pangolin scales were believed to be able to treat conditions such as breast milk stoppage, rheumatoid arthritis, sores and boils.

In a show aired in a Guangdong TV Channel, a TCM doctor taught people how to prepare a TCM soup with pangolin scales for breast milk. The episode was removed from online later because of public outrage.

Are there any laws that ban farming, poaching or selling pangolins? What are the penalties?

All eight species of pangolins were upgraded to Appendix I at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17), which means all international commercial trade is banned after the amendment of the international treaty took effect in January 2017.

Health Check young Chinese Pangolin (KFBG)

In Hong Kong, the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Cap 586) (the Ordinance), is the local legislation that gives effect to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The legislative amendments made to the Ordinance to implement the amendments to Appendices I and II adopted at CoP17, including the uplisting of all eight species of pangolins to Appendix I, came into effect in Hong Kong on November 1, 2018. It was gazetted earlier in June 2018.

According to the Ordinance, any person keeping Appendix I species, whether alive, dead, its parts or derivatives for commercial purposes requires a Licence to Possess issued by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) for each premises keeping the above. 

However, the amendment had a three-month grace period from November 2018 to January 2019 during which traders possessing pangolin scales legally acquired before January 2017 must declare to the department about the stock for a licence to possess the scales and export or re-export them after the new control.

Currently, the maximum penalty for importing or exporting an endangered species without a licence is 10 years in jail and an HK$10 million (US $1.27 million) fine.

If it is by way of shipping, importing undeclared cargo carries a maximum penalty of a HK$2 million (US $255,000) fine and seven years in prison.

Have there been any actual prosecutions?  Have there been any court cases?

Dr Grioni with Chinese Pangolin X-Ray (KFBG)

Yes. Between 2014 and May 7, 2019, there are 144 cases related to pangolins according to AFCD. Among them, 27 were convicted cases with the highest penalty of imprisonment of 20 months ruled in May, 2019.

In 2014, a 46-year-old Malaysian businessman was arrested two days after the seizure of more than 3 tonnes of pangolin scales worth HK$17 million hidden in two shipments from Africa. One container with one tonne of scales arrived from Uganda via Kenya and Malaysia on May 28, 2014, claiming to carry plastic waste. The other container with 2.34 tonnes of scales from Cameroon was selected for inspection on June 11, 2014. Its owners claimed to transport timber.

The businessman was later released on bail. Hong Kong Customs only said the scales were confiscated without disclosing whether the person was convicted. 

Who are the people involved in the trade of pangolins? To whom do they sell the pangolins and for how much?

In Hong Kong, the consumption of pangolin scales are very limited. The reporter’s site visit shows only a handful traditional Chinese drug store owners in the Sheung Wan claimed to have pangolin scales with one presenting the processed scales when the reporter posing as a client twice in 2017 and 2018.The scales was sold at about HK$11 (US$1.41) per gram. 

Most shops claimed they didn’t have scales because it’s protected species. One owner told the Post that people were willing to pay high prices to build up supplies as there was demand on the mainland.

Released back to the wild in Country Park (KFBG)

How can you help?

AFCD’s report hotline: 2150 6978

Fax: 2736 1501 E-mail address: [email protected]

Call the Intelligence Unit at 2150 6978 to be registered as informer who will be rewarded with cash by the department when providing reliable information leading to successful seizure of endangered species or conviction.

Karen Zhang

Karen is a reporter at the South China Morning Post based in Hong Kong since 2018. Her interest includes wildlife tra…