Protect the species

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 1999, 12:00am

The suspended jail sentence and a $300,000 fine imposed on a woman caught selling shahtoosh shawls is a major breakthrough for international conservation efforts, and a message that Hong Kong is determined to stamp out the illegal trading of animal parts.

Only a few weeks ago, a man in a similar case was fined a paltry $20,000 for an offence involving 23 shawls. The difference now is that solid evidence can be produced to show that the shawls are made from the Tibetan antelope, a highly endangered species with wool so fine it takes three pelts to make one garment.

The Agriculture and Fisheries Department sent a chemist to America to learn detection techniques. The usual excuse - that vendors did not know what they were selling - can now no longer hold good.

All over the world, fines for trading in endangered species tend to be low, but attitudes are changing. Yesterday's verdict was closely watched abroad, and will set the standard for a tougher approach. Future offenders may face harsher sentences. The maximum penalty is a $5 million fine and a two-year jail sentence. People who buy the shawls risk a year's jail and a $100,000 fine.

Previously, Hong Kong's rich and fashionable boasted of their shahtoosh collection. This case may persuade them that they can look just as good in cashmere, without depleting Tibetan wildlife or breaking the law.

Similarly, traders in tiger and rhino parts or other banned products should beware. Traditional medicine has herbal substitutes which are just as effective.

But from now on, the cure for poaching may become very hard to swallow.