City Weekend

WildAid campaigner: Hong Kong has come a long way in combatting illegal wildlife trade

Campaign group’s spokesman Alex Hofford says an ivory trade ban is imminent in Hong Kong, while the shark fin trade could cease within a decade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 1:02pm

British-born wildlife campaigner Alex Hofford came to Hong Kong on holiday just before the 1997 handover and ended up settling here. The long-time activist, who lives with his family in the New Territories, began working in the city as a photojournalist reporting on environmental issues and has since travelled across Asia covering the illegal wildlife trade. Since 2014, he has acted as the chief English spokesman for campaign group WildAid Hong Kong, which has recently been focusing its efforts on eradicating the city’s ivory and shark fin trades. He spoke to City Weekend about the power of social media, changing age-old cultural traditions and why the city’s illegal wildlife traders’ days are numbered. Your recent protest at restaurant chain Maxim’s over its sale of shark fin dishes received international media attention. Why did you target them?

It was logical for us to go after the restaurants because no one has really done it. We wanted to target the largest restaurant chain in Hong Kong. We were concerned they were taking some half measures on shark fin, because they say they only serve blue shark, which is not officially endangered but is certainly not sustainable. Also, they may have a policy to only serve blue sharks – that may be their official policy – but has that policy reached their frontline staff? I don’t think it has. We have an audio recording of our volunteer being offered endangered species by a Maxim’s employee. The workers there can certainly order endangered species for you. But what is worse is that they are still selling shark at all.

Within the shark conservation movement we had reached a bit of an impasse, and we were trying to figure out how we could get past this stagnation point. We had a lot of success with our airline campaign – 44 airlines that go through Hong Kong are now shark-free, and there are 17 shipping lines that are now shark-free for their cargo. We seem to have been making good headway with the corporate sector, and the government always said to us that “we will follow where the corporate sector leads”. So that was when we decided to target restaurants. The reaction to the protest has been very positive. It’s even been reported on Chinese official state media channels.

What further reaction have you had from Maxim’s?

They sent out a press release in the wake of our protest saying they have a sustainable sourcing strategy. They said they have made continuous efforts to promote shark-free menus since 2010, and that shark fin consumption has dropped by more than 50 per cent in that time, but more than 60 per cent of their customers still prefer shark fin dishes in banquet menus. But I shared research with them from respected scientists which shows that although blue shark was classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2005, the reality is today it would likely be listed as “endangered”. I urged them to therefore consider not selling blue shark too as it’s not sustainable. But they won’t. And they said they didn’t believe the audio file we shared of our volunteer being offered endangered species on the phone. They said it was fabricated.

Why do you think Hongkongers appear reluctant to give up shark fin?

I think it’s ignorance. Most Hong Kong people are good people and they are clever. And if you explain things to them, they will act and vote with their feet. It is mostly lack of information. But that is one thing Maxim’s says – that they don’t want to take it off the menu because they need to look after their customers, and most of those people are old. And a lot of old people in Hong Kong who came here after the second world war are ill informed, so they don’t really know what is going on. Young people by contrast are well informed. For the old ones, shark fin is a must-have item, and the young people don’t know how to say no to the old people if they are served shark fin because of a Chinese culture of respect. The majority of people here don’t really want to eat it. At some restaurants like Maxim’s, the set menu with shark fin is an extremely destructive bomb in the whole equation.

A new bill banning ivory was put forward in the Legislative Council on June 14. What do you think will be the effect of this on the ivory trade here?

I think eventually it will get passed. The government is stuck in between a rock and a hard place on the issue of compensation. They have said there is no way they will pay compensation to the traders, and quite rightly so. If they did, it would stimulate poaching in Africa. That in itself is a good reason not to pay compensation. If they don’t pass the bill, they will be roundly condemned by the international community. They also have Beijing breathing down their necks on this. It is just a few greedy traders who are holding up the process.

Why do you feel compelled to fight for animal rights issues relating to the illegal wildlife trade in Hong Kong?

It’s not that I particularly love sharks or elephants. It’s just that Hong Kong has a disproportionately large destructive ecological footprint on those two species. If everyone in Hong Kong was eating peacocks and lions, I would have a campaign on that. In WildAid, we have six campaigns: elephants, sharks, rhinos, pangolins, tigers and climate change, but the main ones we focus on here are elephants and sharks. The ivory ban would be really important, because that would serve like an ambassador for all those other species. We need to protect the natural heritage of the planet. As humans, we are pushing all these species to extinction. The way these animals are treated is extremely cruel. Whole elephant families are being killed, baby elephants are being orphaned. And with sharks which are killed, hunters toss the bodies back in the sea after cutting off their fins and the sharks suffocate to death. It is the cruelty element which resonates with people. People see videos of the bloodiness and goriness of killing these animals and then they stop eating those animal products.

How important has social media become for your campaigns?

Very important. For the Maxim’s protest, we organised everything on WhatsApp and Facebook. The impact is there on social media. We just keep pumping information out and posting every day. We try to grab these people by their heart with video clips of the brutality, and once we get them, we share the scientific information with them to get it into their heads. That’s how you convert them to this cause.

How would you characterise Hong Kong’s record on the illegal wildlife trade in comparison with the rest of Asia?

Hong Kong has historically been a hub for the illegal wildlife trade since the mid 20th century because a lot of people fled here from mainland China during the Cultural Revolution due to them being considered bourgeois. It became a viper’s nest; a hideous concentration of all these ivory traders. It has always been masterminded in Hong Kong. So the kingpins are all living here in Mid-Levels. From our point of view, it’s just about how you get them. But on the enforcement side, it’s got a lot better, particularly when you compare to countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos. And attitudes at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in Hong Kong have changed a lot since 2015. When we started our shark fin campaign, we faced stiff resistance, but now they are much more willing to collaborate and they are solidly on our team now.

What’s the most shocking animal rights abuse you have seen as a WildAid campaigner?

In Japan, I went to the centre of the shark fishing industry in Kesennuma and I saw 74 piles of dead blue sharks laid out along the wall. Each pile represented one tonne of blue shark. It was mind-boggling, because that was just on one day. There is no intervention because it is legal there.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the shark fin traders’ bark is worse than their bite. Once I was taking pictures of shark fin in Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, and one guy came at me with a massive shovel, but as he came at me, he slowed down dramatically and he just tapped my camera. He didn’t want to hit me really. He was too scared. For the traders, it’s a sunset industry and the writing is on the wall for them. But I remember on New Year’s Day in 2013, I did get some incredible photos of lots of shark fin being dried out on a rooftop in Hong Kong, and those were shared widely.

What do you hope WildAid can achieve in Hong Kong within the next five to 10 years?

We need to keep educating the public about these issues and keep getting the corporates to stop doing bad things through naming and shaming and investigations. The ultimate aim is to get a shark fin ban but that could be more than a decade away. But who knows, things move fast in Asia. For instance, China saying they will ban the ivory trade in 2017. If you’d said that to me in 2013, I would have said “no way, you’re nuts”. So the trend is our friend. We are not working against the Hong Kong or mainland Chinese governments. There is at least a passive acceptance of what we’re doing.


What is your favourite place in Hong Kong and why?

I have got a favourite place in Sai Kung Country Park where I just go and relax. It’s well off the beaten track. I’m not telling anyone where it is. I discovered it in 2014 – it’s my secret spot. I like to go there to just chill out and go camping.

What is your most prized possession?

I don’t really have any; I’m not a very materialistic person. I treat all my phones and cameras with the utmost disrespect. I care about my photos but not my cameras.

There is a book I really like called In the Name of the People by Lara Pawson, which is about the massacre in Angola in the 1970s and how there has never been any reconciliation there. The government there is in total denial about it. And that book is totally ground-breaking. Nobody really knows about it – thousands of people died and it was not widely reported.

Which person from history do you most admire?

On our protest movements, I’m very much inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and those non-violent, direct action movement leaders. I think it’s very important not to be violent if you are advocating against the killing of endangered species. You lose the moral high ground if you’re violent. And these non-violent protests do work. With King, I admire his determination and his vision, which really paid off in the civil rights movement in America. But of course I’m not trying to compare myself with those guys.

Tell us something not many people know about you.

I love motorbikes. I’m a speed freak. I don’t have any any more, but I used to have a few. I love Vespas too. I got into them because of the music scene in the UK at the time, during the 1980s and 1990s.