By Amanda Whitfort, David Dudgeon
We refer to the report ("Tortoise smugglers to shell out fines", March 15) concerning two Egyptian men who imported 128 spider and radiated tortoises into Hong Kong to "protect the rare creatures from political turmoil in their country".
The conservation assessment of these tortoises on the authoritative global Red List of Endangered Species is that they are critically endangered, and projections are that they may be extinct in the wild within a generation. Collection for international trade is a major threat to these species.
Accordingly, they are listed on the highest grade (Appendix 1) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (to which Hong Kong is a signatory) and an export permit is needed proving that strict conditions concerning the survival of that species have been met.
International smuggling of these tortoises in Asia has been well documented, in part because of the myth that tortoise livers confer health benefits.
Your report states that the court accepted in mitigation the assertion that the accused had been concerned about the fate of the tortoises in Egypt and intended to take them overseas for breeding.
This is extremely surprising given the tortoises concerned are not native to Egypt or mainland Africa, but are endemic to Madagascar. On the back of this mitigation, a two-month jail sentence was suspended for 18 months and the accused need serve no prison time.
All of this information, about the conservation status of these tortoises, is available to anyone doing a two-minute internet search. Given that fact, one wonders what advice the relevant government departments gave the court. In addition, it is pertinent to question the deterrence associated with a fine of HK$45,000 for illegal import of more than 100 of a critically endangered species with a market value exceeding HK$300,000. The fine is especially paltry in view of the additional conviction of the pair for animal cruelty.
The animals were found stuffed head to tail in knotted stockings inside checked-in luggage.
The message here is clear: the Hong Kong legal system does not treat the international trade in endangered wildlife with the seriousness that it deserves. It is high time that changed.