It’s worth more than cocaine, diamonds, gold, or heroin. So what’s stopping the Hong Kong government from stamping out all illegal wildlife products?
Along Hollywood Road in Hong Kong’s touristy arts district sit rows of large window shop fronts filled with exquisite handicrafts. Amongst oriental antiques and wares, are boutique stores proudly and boldly selling ivory carvings. Big-bellied Buddhas, smooth elegant horses, towering gods and goddesses – you name it and it’s likely to be in ivory form.
Photo: Alex Hofford (@alexhofford on Twitter)
Hong Kong is the world’s largest market for elephant ivory. But an announcement last week by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the head of Hong Kong’s administration, to ban the domestic ivory trade will change all that. Leung said they "will kick-start legislative procedures as soon as possible to ban the import and export of elephant hunting trophies."
This is a great win for elephant conservation. But whilst this (long-overdue) momentous occasion deserves celebration (though the government is still yet to release an action plan and timeline), there’s a whole host of endangered wildlife products that are still for sale and pushing species to extinction.
The elephant in the room
What’s worth more than cocaine, diamonds, gold, or heroin? You’ll never guess but Hong Kong’s illegal wildlife trade can pull in very considerable profits. Criminal syndicates have long used Hong Kong as a smuggling route to China, where growing affluence has fueled an unprecedented rise in the trafficking of threatened species.
Greenpeace East Asia knows all too well how easy it is to purchase smuggled items. We’ve gone undercover to investigate the business of dried swim bladders from the totoaba – a marine fish that can reach two metres in length and 100kg in weight, and is endemic to the upper Gulf of California in Mexico. As a supposed health tonic in China it can fetch up to USD 645,000. No wonder it’s been dubbed “aquatic cocaine”.
Greenpeace activists investigate the habitat of the endangered vaquita marina in the upper Gulf of California and locate illegal gillnets, which are contributing to the rapidly declining numbers of vaquita.
During our investigation into purchasing the totoaba, we identified at least 13 shops (including both wholesalers and retailers) as potential sellers, among which seven were able to show our researchers dried totoaba bladder samples in the shop.
But apart from already being critically endangered and illegally sold, there’s another side effect. Totoaba are caught in gillnets, a large vertical net that traps fish by their gills and which unintentionally also entraps the vaquita – a small and rare porpoise of which there are only 57 left in the world. Despite a two year fishing ban by the Mexican government in the protected area, boats are still fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. We know because back in July 2015 we sent the Greenpeace Esperanza ship out in the the Gulf of California waters and have spotted these illegal fishing nets ourselves.
And this is the elephant in the room. Unless Hong Kong truly takes firm action against all endangered wildlife, trafficking will continue and flourish in other areas, not just ivory.
A model of a vaquita used to illustrate how they are caught and entangled in gill nets, which are used to catch totoaba
Keeping up the momentum
All's not lost though. Momentum is growing and Hong Kong is taking steps other than banning ivory to wipe out illegal wildlife trafficking.
In November 2015, the government took unprecedented action to address the illegal totoaba trade by issuing summonses against the operators of two dried seafood shops that sell bladders from the endangered fish. This couldn’t have happened without your support and the global campaign you’ve been part of to save them.
Over 150 people sculpt a giant vaquita on a Hong Kong beach on 'International Save the Vaquita Day'.
We believe that the Hong Kong Government could and should be a leader in combatting wildlife crime not just regionally, but globally. It’s in a position to demonstrate to the local and international community and the criminal syndicates behind the multibillion dollar illegal wildlife trade, that although Hong Kong is a free port, it has zero tolerance for wildlife crime.
Shuk-Wah Chung is a Content Editor at Greenpeace East Asia. Follow her on Twitter @shookiewah
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