Animal rights

Asia for Animals: using Species Victim Impact Statements to combat wildlife crime

The global illegal wildlife trade is valued at more than $US20 billion per year and it is the world’s fourth most lucrative black market.

Delegates at the 2023 Asia for Animals (AfA) conference heard about an initiative that is leading to harsher punishments for those convicted of involvement in the trade.

​Law professor Amanda Whitfort from the University of Hong Kong told AfA delegates about the Species Victim Impact Statement (SVIS) project that she runs at the university.

The initiative, which was launched in 2015, is a collaboration between Whitfort (pictured left); Caroline Dingle from the Conservation Forensics Laboratory at HKU; and Gary Ades, who heads the Fauna Conservation Department at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

Hong Kong is a hub for the illegal wildlife trade. The aim of Whitfort and her collaborators is to get judges and prosecutors there to understand the impact of the trade and to take it more seriously when they are sentencing offenders.

What the judges are dealing with, Whitfort says, is a very serious form of organised crime. “What you will see in many of these shipments is mixed species,” she told delegates. “You’ll see shipments of Asian pangolin mixed with African pangolin.”

The aim of the SVIS project, Whitfort says, is to make sure that judges aren’t deceived, that they aren’t given the false impression that the trafficked animals are not really valuable and that the traffickers do not therefore deserve a serious deterrent sentence.

The value of trafficked animals increases as they cross borders, she adds.

All pangolin species have been CITES-1¹ listed since 2017, Whitfort says, but, since then, worldwide seizures have tripled.

It takes 2,777 Sunda pangolins (also known as Malayan or Javan pangolins) to provide one ton of pangolin scales, she adds. The processed  scales are worth much more than pangolin meat because they are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

“We’re seeing horrendous shipments in Hong Kong, in Singapore; ten to 12 tons of these animals,” Whitfort told delegates.

“Sometimes they’re sold live as meat and they’ll be injected with liquid flour or other kinds of chemicals to make them heavier for a better price. They’re also sometimes injected with sedatives to ensure that they’re not detected when they’re going across borders.”

A Sunda pangolin baby clings to its mother’s tail. Photo © Thai Van Nguyen/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

There’s now a recognition in criminology that individual animals, species groups, and even ecosystems can be victims, Whitfort says.

Whitfort and her collaborators had originally hoped that species victim statements might be handed up as documents to the courts, but, she says, the Hong Kong charter for victims still constrains itself to human victims so they haven’t been able to do this.

“What we have got is a situation where the judges have been trained now in the species victim impact statements, and they refer to them,” she said. “We distil the science into a form that’s easy for the judges to understand, but is robust and is reliable.”

It is explained to the judges that it’s not just the target species that is impacted when an animal is taken for the illegal wildlife trade.

“There will be other animals that are also impacted,” Whitfort said. “There will be perhaps problems caused to the habitat.”

A humphead wrasse

Whitfort cites the example of cyanide fishing for the humphead wrasse and large groupers in Indonesia and the Philippines. “You are bleaching the corals and also affecting some of the smaller fish when those animals are taken,” she told AfA delegates

The judges are also told about the concept of keystone species, and the potential tipping points when a large predator is taken out of an ecosystem; how this will impact the animals below. They are also told about impacts on local communities.

“We don’t just train judges,” Whitfort said. “We also train prosecutors, and sometimes enforcement bodies, police, and forestry officials as well. We talk about population depletion and future concerns.

“We talk about food chain effects. If you take out the prey of an endangered species, then you make it harder for that endangered species to survive.

“We talk about invasive species concerns … it’s an animal that potentially, if it had been abandoned, or released or lost, could have had an impact on your local biodiversity.”

Whitfort and her collaborators have drafted 150 Species Victim Impact Statements for mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, plants, and invertebrates.

Staff at Hong Kong’s Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department, the Customs and Excise Department, and the Department of Justice have been trained in the ways that Species Victim Impact Statements can be used to more effectively present wildlife cases in court.

​The use of Species Victim Impact Statements has resulted in penalty increases of more than 2,000% since the initiative began, Whitfort says.

The tariff sentence for smuggling rhino horns increased from two to 12 months’ imprisonment after information provided by the SVIS team was included in the prosecutor’s submissions to the court in a case in 2018.

Whitfort cites the case, in 2014, of a man caught smuggling ten ploughshare tortoises into Hong Kong. He was sentenced to just six weeks’ imprisonment.

Madagascan ploughshare tortoises are the most endangered tortoises in the world and there are fewer than 100 of them left in the wild.

Ploughshare tortoise shells can sell for US$1,000 per centimetre.

A ploughshare tortoise. Photo from Turtle Conservancy

In 2019, in a very similar case (the same species, and the same numbers) a judge who took an SVIS into account sentenced the smuggler to three years’ imprisonment, including 12 months for animal cruelty. This was the first time that animal cruelty had ever been attached to a wildlife crime smuggling case, Whitfort said.

Whitfort also cited a case about the smuggling of nearly 50 kilos of saiga antelope horns that went to Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal in early 2021. The court took an SVIS into account.

The antelope horns were brought through Hong Kong from Russia for the Chinese traditional medicine trade.

Whitfort wrote in an article for the Environmental Investigation Agency that, over the past 20 years, the wildlife trade had been supercharged by globalisation, the information revolution, and rising incomes in Asia.

“The number of species traded is staggering – more than 7,600 species of terrestrial animals; more than a third of all reptile species and a quarter of all bird species are captured and sold,” she wrote.

Species Victim Impact Statements for pangolins and elephants are now being used to help prosecutors and investigators in the fight against wildlife crime in Nigeria.

They are referred to in Nigeria’s rapid reference guide about wildlife crime, which was launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on World Wildlife Day in March this year.

The 2023 AfA conference was held in the Malaysian city of Kuching on the island of Borneo under the banner ‘Education and Engagement Bring Change’ and the organisers were the Asia for Animals Coalition and the Sarawak Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).

  1. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals from the threats of international trade.


1= 5 euro, x 2 = 10 euro, X 3 =15 euro, etc.