HONG KONG: When CNA correspondent Wei Du got her first dog, a Shiba Inu called Elon, last year, little did she know her pet-related internet searches would lead her to a strange phenomenon: Dead pets washing up on Hong Kong’s shores.
Last August, Lamma Island resident Iva Sladic found a cage among other rubbish on the beach. She took a closer look, saw furry bodies inside and posted her finding on Facebook. The carcasses turned out to be six dead cats.
The day before, another cage containing three dead dogs had washed up on southern Hong Kong Island. A few weeks later, it was a cage with a dog and two cats on Lantau’s shores.
The cats and dogs were unlikely victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as strands of a much larger web of animal smuggling.
Senior Inspector Kary Lam of the Hong Kong Marine Police told the programme Undercover Asia that officers busted a smuggling operation in August and found 12 pets crammed into four cages in a boat.
The authorities believe the bodies washed ashore were the work of smugglers who tossed whatever they could into the sea while being pursued so as to lighten their load, impede officers and try to speed out of Hong Kong waters.
Although smuggling between Hong Kong and mainland China is not new — Hong Kong authorities encountered 152 cases involving HK$770 million (S$133 million) worth of goods last year — it was the first time the police realised pets were being smuggled by sea.
“Owing to the pandemic, land crossings were closed, so smuggling has shifted onto the sea. We’ve seen a lot more activities in the past year,” said Lam.
THRIVING BLACK MARKET
Hong Kong has a black market in pet cats and dogs because legally imported animals cost much more than smuggled ones.
Animals legally imported from China must also undergo a four-month quarantine, by which time they would be out of favour with buyers looking for baby animals.
So there are people on the mainland who breed animals to be smuggled across the border and sold as pets, said Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director (welfare) of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong).
“At one point, people were saying that if you bought five puppies in China, smuggled five in, and only one survived and was sold, you’d still make a healthy profit,” she said.
“Also, I’ve been to markets in Guangdong province, and you talk to the vendors in the pet stores, and they’d say to you, ‘Oh, you live in Hong Kong. I can arrange for this dog or cat to be delivered.’”
The cost of breeding animals in Hong Kong is high because land is expensive. And in 2017, its government implemented new animal welfare rules requiring all dog breeders to be properly licensed, further increasing costs.
To bypass licensing laws, illegal sellers might advertise their animals as up for adoption. But as Du found out when she responded to an online post, the animals were for sale.
The seller quoted a price of HK$7,000 for a cat, a third of the price she would have paid at a licensed pet shop. She did not buy any cat from him.
She went on to discover dozens of pet owners in China whose cats and dogs, entrusted to pet immigration agencies, have disappeared while transiting Hong Kong.
The owners included students abroad who rushed home after COVID-19 hit and were separated from their pets.
Jason (not his real name), for instance, returned to Shanghai in July after completing his studies in Australia. The airlines with pet-friendly policies had reduced their routes, and he was unable to get on a flight with his cat.
He entrusted it to an agency, which arranged for the cat’s journey to Shanghai via Hong Kong. The agency kept him posted with a video when his pet arrived in the Fragrant Harbour.
But shortly afterwards, a man called and told Jason that the driver who picked up his cat had gone missing. The caller could not provide the driver’s contact number or licence plate number.
Hong Kong police are aware of such cases of pets vanishing en route to the mainland.
WATCH: Missing pets and the deadly trail of pet smugglers in Hong Kong (7:50)
The animals in the smuggling operation busted in August were microchipped and had legally entered the territory, cited Hong Kong Marine Police detective Alex Tam.
“Our guess is that the pandemic made it impossible for the owners to bring their pets back to the mainland legally, so they employed agents,” he said.
“The agents didn’t care about the pets’ safety, so they tried to smuggle them.”
DRIVEN TO BRINK OF EXTINCTION
Hong Kong’s status as a major port and trade hub means cats and dogs form a mere fraction of animal smuggling operations.
Local authorities seized around 18,000 animals between 2015 and 2019, according to data tracked by the ADM Capital Foundation, an organisation that focuses on climate action and biodiversity protection.
This figure, which includes endangered species, is likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”, said the foundation’s wildlife programme manager, Sam Inglis.
Demand for exotic pets, fuelled partly by social media, has serious implications for wildlife and biodiversity.
Besides the problem of consumers who are unable to handle and provide well for their pets, the animals may have been poached from the wild and ripped from their mothers, which may have been killed in the process.
Many animals also die in transit before they reach their buyers.
One of the world’s rarest — and heavily trafficked — tortoises is the ploughshare tortoise, which is native to Madagascar and on the brink of extinction. Only 200 to 400 of them are estimated to remain in the wild.
But at one point, Hong Kong’s Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden had an estimated 7 per cent of the world’s living population of the tortoise, cited senior conservation officer Paul Crow from the conservation and education centre.
“The scary thing is these are the ones that were confiscated. There may have been more that made it through the territory without being stopped,” said Crow, whose centre tries to rehome animals or return them to the wild.
Even animals that are confiscated and rescued may meet with a tragic end.
Species that are not rare will not be the focus of zoo breeding programmes and conservation efforts, Crow noted. If their point of origin is unknown, it may be impossible to release them back into the wild.
WATCH: The full episode — Hong Kong's deadly underground animal trade (48:03)
“Sometimes in cases like this, governments and rescue facilities are forced to euthanise or humanely despatch an animal because it doesn’t have an option — a positive option,” Crow said.
David Olson, conservation director at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong, said social media platforms should remove listings of animals for sale and encourage people not to have selfies or any kind of interaction with wild animals.
There should be dedicated teams evaluating listings in different languages, he suggested. “We need to get away from the concept of wild animals as pets or anywhere outside of the wild as entertainment.”
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia here. The programme airs on Saturdays at 9pm.