Nearly 10 tonnes of shark fins were seized as part of a record HK$210 million (US$27 million) haul of luxury goods, including handbags from Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, and endangered wildlife products destined for mainland China, customs officials said on Thursday.
The 9.7 tonnes of fins, valued at HK$110 million on their own, were removed from some 15,000 animals, including endangered thresher sharks. The haul was the biggest-ever seizure of shark fins by value, according to Senior Superintendent Mark Woo Wai-kwan, of customs’ syndicate crimes investigation bureau.
Customs officers made their largest shark fin seizure in terms of quantity in May last year, finding 26 tonnes taken from 38,500 endangered sharks in two shipping containers from Ecuador, though that haul was worth only a fraction of the price – HK$8.6 million.
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Woo said the latest bust, which took place on September 24, comprised higher-value fins worth an average of HK$11,000 per kilogram.
Aside from that seizure, customs officers had already confiscated 362 tonnes of endangered flora and fauna – including red sandalwood, ginseng and totoaba fish – in 207 cases over the first nine months of the year, up nearly 60 per cent from 230 tonnes in 2020’s 221 cases.
The senior superintendent said an investigation suggested the shark fins, endangered plants, fruit and other luxury goods in the latest bust had been sourced from around the world by a triad-controlled smuggling gang, then stored in a warehouse off Lung Kwu Tan Road in Tuen Mun while awaiting shipment to mainland China by speedboat.
The HK$210 million in contraband goods – the most valuable smuggling bust of any kind by customs officers – was confiscated in a raid on the warehouse carried out in conjunction with police just one day before Senior Inspector Lam Yuen-yee was killed during a maritime operation on September 23.
Lam and her three marine police colleagues were thrown overboard after their vessel was rammed by a speedboat they suspected of smuggling and were trying to intercept off Sha Chau. Her body was found two days later off Lantau Island.
The incident has sparked a broad crackdown on the triad-run cross-border smuggling business.
In the warehouse raid last month, customs officers arrested a 34-year-old man on suspicion of attempting to export unmanifested cargo and possession of endangered species without a licence. He was released on bail pending further investigation.
Woo attributed the delay in releasing details of the bust to the massive amount of time it took to categorise, count and weigh the enormous consignment, and to verify the endangered species involved with help from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.
In addition to the 9.7 tonnes of shark fin, the haul also included 2.2 tonnes of other high-value foodstuffs, such as bird’s nest, dried fish maw and abalone, worth HK$74 million.
There were also about 11,000 luxury and cosmetic products with an estimated value of HK$19 million, as well as about 4,800 electronic products such as mobile phones and tablets worth HK$6.4 million.
The luxury items included more than 60 watches and 370 handbags and wallets, all of which were new. One of the watches was a HK$340,000 Jaguar timepiece while the brands of handbags and wallets included Burberry, Hermes, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
The consignment also included 6.8 tonnes of Taiwanese pomelo worth HK$370,000, and 10kg of Cuban cigars valued at HK$400,000.
Woo said they also seized dozens of endangered plants – mostly cactuses – and some originated from Mexico.
“The whole haul is estimated to be worth HK$210 million. It is the biggest-ever seizure in a smuggling case,” he said.
Woo added the smuggling operation was designed to evade stringent import restrictions by mainland authorities and tariffs of up to HK$200 million.
“Some of the items are subject to mainland import tariffs of as much as 400 per cent of their value,” he said, adding the syndicate that owned the goods had been in operation since June.
Describing the gang as cautious and “well-organised”, his colleague, assistant Superintendent Herman Lui Siu-fai, said it had carried out air, land and sea counter-surveillance with the use of drones in an attempt to evade capture.
Intelligence indicated the HK$210 million consignment was to be smuggled across the border on the day of the raid, according to Woo.
Customs officers swooped into action at about 1am on September 24 when five men were spotted moving bags of goods from a truck onto two speedboats docked at a pier a short distance from the warehouse. The truck had previously been seen leaving the storage facility.
As officers moved in, the porters jumped onto the speedboats, which took off for the maritime boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland. No arrests were made at the pier.
At the same time, another team of officers raided the warehouse and found the haul. There were another three trucks at the warehouse, two of them already fully loaded.
Woo said they were investigating whether the latest bust was linked to one in June, in which customs officers seized HK$120 million worth of contraband in Hong Kong in a joint operation with mainland authorities.
In the first nine months of this year, police and customs officers confiscated HK$730 million worth of luxury goods, frozen meat and other contraband in 61 cross-border maritime smuggling cases. They seized just HK$490 million worth of smuggled goods in 62 cases in the whole of last year.
Woo attributed the rise in seizures this year to a strategy of targeting sources of smuggled goods by finding the warehouses where contraband was stored.
He added that customs would enhance intelligence gathering and cooperation with other local and mainland law enforcement agencies to combat smuggling.
This article Hong Kong customs makes largest-ever smuggling bust, with HK$210 million haul of shark fins, luxury goods including Hermes, Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags first appeared on South China Morning Post