wildlife CRIME & NATURE conservation endangered species

How did Veriton Investigations become involved in wildlife conservation projects for the protection of endangered species in SE Asia?

How did Veriton Investigations become investigators of wildlife endangered species?

Of course, when we started Veriton in mid 2014,  there was a 5-year plan.  This which included the development of niche markets.  And how did that go?  Well some materialized while others didn’t…  However, through an early business partner we ended up doing a lengthy, and very successful, investigation into the shark fin trade in Hong Kong for a worldwide NGO. 

A member of the “client Shark fin team” later said that there were many more sharks in the seas because of our work.  In the last few years, Hong Kong has witnessed changes in laws and increases in jail time for wildlife crime.  Many logistics companies have also stated that they will not ship endangered species.

The field of investigations and security is by default secretive and often uncompromising.  So to have had the opportunity to work on projects that benefit the environment has been,  at times, humbling.

Since the shark fin project, we have worked on multiple projects on endangered species and have become specialists in conservation investigations.   Apart from sharks fin, other seafood projects have included totoaba, seafood cucumber and humphead wrasse. Such is the serendipity of life.

The unloaded contents of a 40ft container of shark fin on a Hong Kong street. Some of the fins are hammerhead - a now endangered species.

Shark Fin Trade in Hong Kong

Unless you see for yourself the volumes of shark fin being traded, it’s hard to conceive of the quantity involved.  Once, one of our investigators counted  398 sacks of shark fins as they were unloaded from a 40ft container in Sheung Wan: the centre of the trade in Hong Kong.

Sharks have been so over-fished that many are now an endangered species. The hammerhead shark is a good example. Sadly, the selling of shark fin, unless from endangered species, is not an offence in Hong Kong. The problem is compounded as it is often difficult to identify the species of shark from which a particular fin came from, other than by DNA.

A jumbled mass of ivory jewelry from elephants which are now an endangered species
Source: Wikimedia Commons by G Shire

Ivory Investigations

Although China has already banned the trade in ivory, Hong Kong will not do so until the end of 2021.  Hong Kong shops can sell pre-ban ivory.  Nevertheless, there is still evidence that “new” ivory is being turned into decorative ivory items such as chopsticks and ivory jewelry. Notably, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade of ivory in 1989.

The trade is much reduced but wildlife crime investigators can still find evidence of Hong Kong ivory traders operating small factories in neighbouring Guangzhou.

Seizures of ivory in Hong Kong still occur.  In JAN 2017, Hong Kong Customs found 7.2 tonnes of ivory in a container of frozen fish.  Although it is notable achievement that the tusks were found and seized, no prosecutions were made as a result of the seizure.  Conservationists, wildlife investigators and legal professionals have called for wildlife offences to be included under the same laws as organized crime for greater deterrence and investigative power. 

Bladders of the endangered species of fish Totoaba traded illegally.
Illegally traded totoaba. Photo by Elephant Action League (EAL)

Totoaba: An Endangered Species

The totoaba is a highly endangered species of fish.  It is found in Baja California only. Totoaba’s swim bladder is highly treasured in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). 

Totoaba is no longer widely available in Hong Kong.   Some specialist restaurants still use it for soup but it comes with a high price tag.  One recent reference on Facebook suggested the sale of a single totoaba swim bladder was well over HKD2M.  The fish is increasingly difficult to traffic and there have been seizures of totoaba swim bladders at Hong Kong International Airport by Customs & Excise.

In MAR 2019, the BBC reported that Authorities in China are prosecuting 11 people for smuggling USD119m worth of fish swim bladders from Mexico.

The harvesting of totoaba carries associated conservation risks. The fish  shares its maritime habitat with a species of porpoise – the vaquita. The vaquita is on the edge of extinction.  There are few left in the wild as a result of totoaba fishermen using illegal nets that sometimes also snare a porpoise.

On a brighter note, serious efforts are being made to re-populate Baja California with totoaba. In July 2018, the fourth release of around 40,000 juvenile totoaba took place in the Sea of Cortez.