HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - It was after dark on a Tuesday evening in December 2017 when the vans pulled onto Island House Lane, a placid side street of residential complexes and community garden plots in the suburban Tai Po district.
High-rises gave way to lush forest as the street wound down to a pebble beach. Across the harbour was Tolo Channel, and jagged green hills descending into the sea all the way to the coast of China's Guangdong province.
On the water, a speedboat was waiting. Men began unloading the vans' cargo onto the beach.
When officers from Hong Kong's Customs and Excise Department arrived, the boats fled out to sea. Marine officers pursued them for two hours before losing them in the channel's warren of rocky coves and mangrove estuaries.
From the vans, however, officers were able to recover part of the contraband cargo.
There was about US$1 million worth of mobile phones, digital cameras and tablets. And, packed into cardboard boxes, the agents discovered more than 300kg of smooth brown scales, each a couple of inches across, that looked as if they had been stripped from some prehistoric reptile.
In fact, they came from pangolins: a housecat-size, forest-dwelling mammal that resembles an armour-clad anteater. Pangolin meat is a delicacy in southern China, where it is critically endangered, and its scales are prized as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
During the past decade, the animal has been hunted out of most of its range in South-east Asia, and it is being poached at alarming levels in Central Africa. The pangolin's value has increased with its rarity - the shipment seized in Tai Po had a street value of around US$300,000.
In the geography of the illegal wildlife trade, Hong Kong occupies a unique and essential position. It is a city that has built its reputation and economy as a frictionless connector of countries and capital, located on the doorstep of mainland China - the most ravenous wildlife market in the world.
Over the past decade, the appetites of segments of the booming Chinese middle and upper class - for jewellery, artwork, traditional (though often scientifically uncreditable) remedies and exotic foods - have dramatically expanded a global wildlife black market that has decimated species in Africa, South-east Asia and elsewhere.
The pangolin is the latest casualty: Four of the eight species are now endangered, and the international trade in pangolin products has been banned since 2016.
Researchers at the ADM Capital Foundation, a Hong Kong-based organisation focused on environmental issues, recently analysed data on seizures of wildlife products from the Customs and Excise Department.
In a report published last month by the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group, a consortium that includes the foundation, the researchers found that the territory accounted for more pangolin seizures than any country.
Between 2013 and 2017, Hong Kong seized 43 metric tonnes of pangolin scales and carcasses - representing tens of thousands of animals - in shipments arriving from six countries, principally Cameroon and Nigeria.
The amount intercepted between 2013 and 2015 alone is equivalent to 45 per cent of all the pangolin products seized worldwide between 2007 and 2015, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Although the data analysed by the foundation does not include 2018, pangolin seizures nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018. In January 2019, Hong Kong authorities intercepted the territory's largest-ever shipment of pangolin scales, 9 tonnes in all, on a cargo ship bound to Vietnam from Nigeria.
The pangolin products appear to have been destined mostly for mainland China - though they are not hard to find in Hong Kong, either. On the well-trafficked Queen's Road in the Sheung Wan district, the clerk at one small shop, presiding over a counter piled with dried goji berries, almonds and mung beans, readily offered pangolin scales to an inquiring customer.
"We sell a lot, and we've been doing this business for a long time," she said. One liang - a Chinese measure equal to about 37.5 grams - retailed for HK$300 (S$52). "It's quite luxurious," she said.
While the shop was careful not to keep the product on the premises, she said that with a phone call it could be delivered in half an hour, and that getting it across the border undetected was easy.
"We'll just grind it into powder," she said. In order to avoid getting caught, she advised, "don't get too much at one time."
A Pipeline for Illegal Trade
In recent years, as alarm has grown about both the ecological consequences of the illegal wildlife trade and its links to other forms of crime and security threats, many countries have significantly stepped up their response, stiffening laws and increasing the resources dedicated to enforcing them.
In the United States, wildlife trafficking is now often prosecuted under muscular organised-crime statutes. The United Nations describes the trade in wildlife as "one of the largest transnational organised criminal activities."
Hong Kong stands out against this trend, conservationists here charge. While other countries with the political and law enforcement capacity to fight wildlife trafficking have begun to do so, the territory's government - which is otherwise relatively aggressive in combating corruption, organised crime and other ills - has appeared reluctant to follow suit, even as an enormous share of the illegal trade passes through the territory's airport and shipping terminals.
The territory's Customs and Excise Department estimates the wildlife contraband it has seized over the past five years - by value, principally pangolin, elephant ivory and timber - to be worth more than US$71 million (S$97 million), a figure that suggests the possibility of a billion-dollar illicit industry.
But environment and law enforcement officials routinely reject the notion that these seizures suggest the existence of serious criminal enterprises.
"We do not have very strong evidence that organised crime is organising" the Hong Kong wildlife trade, said Tse Chin-wan, Hong Kong's undersecretary for the environment, in an interview in August.
Fewer than 20 per cent of the seizures of pangolin products that ADMCF identified resulted in prosecutions. (According to the Customs and Excise Department, no charges have been filed yet in the speedboat smuggling case in December 2017.)
Cases involving ivory - the largest segment of Hong Kong's illegal wildlife seizures by value, with US$26.3 million worth seized from 2013 to 2017 - were more likely to be prosecuted.
But arrests were rarely made above the level of the individual couriers, known as "ant smugglers," who were caught red-handed at the airport and generally received little more than a few weeks in prison and modest fines.
The official reluctance to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade is explained in part by the territory's long history as perhaps the world's premier entrepôt for legal wildlife products. The city is culturally and physically adjacent to Guangdong province, a centre of traditional Chinese medicine and ivory craftsmanship for centuries, where the consumption of wildlife for food is also deeply ingrained.
Hong Kong is also close to Fujian province, a coastal region famous for its carving industry, where many illegal wildlife products - rhinoceros horn, helmeted hornbill crests, rosewood - are turned into high-end jewellery, knickknacks and statuary for the Chinese market.
Hong Kong's century as a British territory gave it connections to merchants in the former African colonies who traded in elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and animal skins prized by consumers around the world. The city was the centre of the international ivory trade until it was banned in 1989, importing as much as 700 tonnes of tusks from Africa annually at its 1970s peak.
For years, Hong Kong has been a leading importer and exporter of shark fins - a popular soup ingredient in Cantonese cuisine. By the most recent available statistics, the territory leads the world in imports of live fish and reptiles.
Much of this legal trade is visible in neighbourhoods like the commercial district of Sheung Wan, where storefronts crammed with dried sea horses and birds' nests crowd the street beneath billboards of the Kardashians.
Conservationists charge that this legal commerce complicates efforts to tackle Hong Kong's role as a key node in the global illegal trade. Once they are skinned and dried for sale, the fins of the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark, for instance, are almost impossible to distinguish from the fins of legally caught blue sharks in Hong Kong's seafood shops.
Among the dried fish swim bladders - also a popular soup ingredient - hanging in the same shop windows, it is similarly difficult to distinguish the sustainably caught species from the swim bladders of the totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose illegal harvest off the Pacific Coast of Mexico has also pushed the vaquita, a porpoise that is often caught in fishing nets, to the edge of extinction.
'The World is Changing'
The massive growth of the shipping industry and global connectivity have made the markets for these species ruthlessly efficient and fast-moving. "I'm wondering, what's the next species?" said Timothy C. Bonebrake, a biologist at the University of Hong Kong's conservation forensics laboratory, which assists local law enforcement in analysing wildlife contraband.
"Is there a way you can be proactive about this and stop it before these things are all critically endangered? And certainly, in Hong Kong, we're seeing there is always a new species, all the time."
Efforts to patrol Hong Kong's wildlife imports are also hampered by the sheer scale of commerce in a territory whose economy was built on unencumbered movement.
Most of the seized pangolin scales have turned up in shipping containers in Hong Kong's port, the fifth largest in the world, where inspecting more than a sliver of the nearly 21 million containers that pass through annually would be a herculean task.
Ivory and rhino horn from Africa increasingly arrive through Hong Kong's international airport, which leads the world in airfreight and is the eighth-most-trafficked by passengers.
"We're serious about enforcement and prosecution," said Tse, the environment undersecretary. "But we have to accept the reality that Hong Kong is a free port, and it offers a lot of opportunities for this kind of activity to happen. Every day we have tens of thousands of cargos going in and going out of the city."
Tse argues that in the face of these daunting challenges, the best hope for reducing Hong Kong's role in the illegal wildlife trade is reducing local consumer demand for legal products. He points to the territory's consumption of shark fins, imports of which fell 50 per cent between 2007 and 2017.
"I think the community has begun to accept that if something is not good for the environment, it should be phased out," he said. "The world is changing."
Hong Kong has also made some moves to address its role as a wildlife-shopping destination for consumers from mainland China, where the appetite for wildlife products shows little sign of abating.
In 2018, Hong Kong took the significant step of banning the sale of ivory, following similar moves by China and the United States two years before. It was a momentous change, and a recognition that while the city is important to the ivory trade, the ivory trade is no longer very important to the city or its residents.
The busy Nathan Road shopping district, which was crammed with ivory shops as recently as the 1980s, is now mostly given over to outposts of international luxury brands. "There's no reason why we have to focus on ivory here," Tse said.
Since the international trade was banned in 1989, Hong Kong traders have been allowed to sell their stocks of pre-ban ivory - and for years, conservationists, citing that stockpile's suspiciously slow depletion, argued that traders were using it to launder ivory from freshly killed elephants.
Some ivory sellers readily admit that such sleight-of-hand occurred, blaming unscrupulous traders while casting themselves as collateral damage in the struggle to contain the illegal wildlife trade.
"Sly and dishonest businessmen, they make it difficult for us," said Leung Shun-cheung, who with his sister, Leung Yun-tim, runs the Hang Cheong Ivory Factory, a small shop on Queen's Road. "They use the smuggled ivory to fill the space in their quota for legal ivory. That's how they did it. But we are innocent."
On an early evening in August, Leung Shun-cheung was crouched over a workbench in the shop, sanding a pair of ivory chopsticks he had carved, while Leung Yun-tim sorted through bills at a nearby desk. The bare fluorescent light bulbs illuminated dusty glass shelves packed full of ivory carvings, but no customers.
"Because of the ban, we don't have much business," Leung Yun-tim said. "From time to time, the locals come here to buy a small piece." She said that in three years, when the domestic ban goes into effect, they intended to close their shop, which their father opened before World War II.
Leung Shun-cheung produced a sheaf of letters he had received from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, advising him of the 2021 deadline and offering to enroll him in training for a new career. He was 72 years old, and had only ever worked in the ivory shop.
"The government is asking me to retire at the age of 75," he said, laughing grimly. "They're very concerned about me."
He settled the chopsticks in a display case: two slender increments of supply awaiting a demand that remained vast, but for the moment, out of reach.