Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Over the last nine months, over 30 journalists across 14 countries and territories investigated how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.
Today, we’re sending you our dispatch from Hong Kong.
You can find our global report here:
Hong Kong has been a hotspot for shipping pangolin scales since 2014, with tons of container shipments seized from Africa, and smaller seizures by speedboat and individual smugglers arriving by air.
Although Traditional Chinese Medicine still plays an important role in the territory – there are more than 7,100 licensed TCM medicines traders here – local dealers we met undercover told us that they were not interested in large amounts of scales because the local demand was just too small.
“The risks (of selling scales) compared to the profits are too high. It’s not worth it,” a shop owner told us, “this business is better in the mainland.”
At the Lo Wu Correctional Institution, a prison, we found two small-time traffickers who were willing to discuss their actions.
The two Chinese women are serving time for attempting to smuggle some 110 kilograms of pangolin scales in four suitcases from Hong Kong International Airport to Macau by ferry, en route from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One of them, aged 41, told us about her humble origins in China, her time in Congo, her plans to travel home to China and her arrest at the Hong Kong ferry terminal in August this year. Both are from the Guangxi region in southern China and asked not to be identified to speak more freely.
The prison where the two smugglers are being held. Credit: Karen Zhang / The South China Morning Post
They said that a man they called Li Guangsheng had invited them to Congo to invest in beauty parlours last year. Li ran a construction business in Kinshasa, the capital, they said. “I was told that there are a lot of Chinese there and business was good,” one of the inmates said.
Li hosted and provided for them during their one-month stay in Kinshasa from October to November last year, they said. Then Li supposedly asked them to take four suitcases to Macau, the gambling hub.
They flew from Kinshasa to Hong Kong through Casablanca, in Morocco, and Doha, a circuitous route they said was cheaper than a direct flight.
Their statements could not be verified, nor could contact information for Li be found.
The two women were caught at Hong Kong airport during a routine customs X-ray check. Their suitcases contained the scales of 302 pangolins, at a total weight of 110 kilograms, wrapped in tin foil bags. Prosecutors later estimated that the scales could be worth as much as $71,000.
When we visited them in pre-trial custody before their sentencing, both women claimed that they did not know what they had been transporting. “We thought it was dried seafood,” one of them said.
They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 16 months in prison for importing a protected wildlife product without a license.
The court heard the pair’s case after new legislation passed in November 2018, increasing penalties for pangolin trafficking. Now, the crime is punishable with a fine of up to 10 million Hong Kong dollars, or roughly $1.3 million, and up to 10 years in prison.
During a visit after their sentencing, one of the two inmates changed her story. She said that she knowingly trafficked pangolins, but said that they did not expect to be jailed.
These are the 110 kilograms of pangolin scales wrapped in tin foil that the women tried to smuggle through Hong Kong to Macau. © Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department
Li told them about the scales, she said. “He said if we got caught, he would pay the fine and we would be fine,” she said. “We trusted him.”
“I heard that someone bringing ivory for him was arrested in Hong Kong before,” the inmate said, “but that the person was released after paying a fine.”
Their case is not the only one. In mid-November last year, a man from China’s Fujian Province was sentenced to 20 months in prison for smuggling 48 kilograms of pangolin scales from the Democratic Republic of Congo via Ethiopia to Hong Kong.
The two women are still serving time, spending their days washing dishes and cleaning floors at a prison kitchen. As soon as they are released, they plan to return home to Guangxi. “We will be sent to the border and then take high-speed trains to go home,” said one, with a wry smile.
Next week, we’ll send you dispatches from Vietnam and Taiwan.
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