Endangered values

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 1997, 12:00am

When a world conference on endangered species began in Harare yesterday, one item high on the agenda concerned the use of animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine.

The danger of Hong Kong becoming involved in this trade after July 1 is worrying conservationists, despite the fact that a border will still divide the Special Administrative Region and the mainland. The fear is that although smuggling will remain difficult, closer mainland ties could encourage a change of attitude. After all, in China, markets deal in all sorts of rare species - often simply for the cooking pot.

Beijing is conservation-conscious, but still tolerates practices which do not belong in the modern world. With so many social problems, it lacks resources to protect threatened species. So it will take great vigilance to stop Hong Kong becoming a transit point for banned products.

The Agriculture and Fisheries Department is working with China's Ministry of Forestry to ensure there is no upsurge in smuggling after July, and the Government is updating laws to suit current requirements. Since rules were introduced 20 years ago, hundreds of species have died out, and more will go the same way without tough laws to protect them.

When traditional Chinese medicine evolved 5,000 years ago, nature was in harmony. Animals were a renewable resource. That is no longer the case. Nor do we need to plunder the wild for cures. Modern medicine can offer effective substitutes for tiger bone or rhino horn.

Although traditional Chinese medicine is an impressive science with a place in mainland culture, there is no reason for it to become moribund, locked in practices inappropriate to the modern world. Throughout history it has developed new treatments and discarded the old. It will go on doing so.

Education will eventually persuade mainlanders to reject things like bear bile farms which are a stain on a civilised nation. Bile is now so over-produced in these cruel factories that it is sold as a cure for dandruff. This has nothing to do with medicine, it is the simple torture of animals for appallingly trivial purposes.

We do not want to see this in Hong Kong, where traditional Chinese medicine is rightly popular but treats patients with herbs and renewable resources.

The tiger must not become extinct through lack of laws here. We have a good reputation for conservation. That, too, is worth preserving.