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Programmes

Protection of Vulnerable Habitats and Ecosystems

Wildlife Trade Monitoring

   

Background

Hong Kong is a major trade hub for many wildlife commodities, such as ivory, turtles as well as the myriad of species used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Import volume of shark fins, seahorses and sea cucumbers to Hong Kong is the world’s largest. Hong Kong ‘s Import of Chinese herbal medicine amounted to over HKD 2 billion annually, with majority of the material still sourced from the wild. It is estimated that wildlife is now being harvested from the tropical forest in Southeast Asia over six times of its sustainable rate. Regulating wildlife trade is now one of the global conservation priorities.

Conservation Action

Major challenges for law enforcement against wildlife crime include species identification and source tracking, especially for processed items that lost most diagnostic features, such as traditional Chinese medicines and fish fins. Genetic technology is frequently applied to facilitate investigation. We developed DNA method to identify the species of medicinal orchids from heavily processed market samples. The Conservation Genetic Laboratory in FLO department also receives confiscated wildlife from the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD) and Hong Kong Customs, and conduct genetic analysis to verify species identity and determine possible origins. The result can inform investigation on the illicit trade operation, including trade route and the scale of exploitation in terms of number of source populations.  KFBG also conducts market survey to monitor trade in endangered species; reviews wildlife trade status with customs statistics and remains alert to the emergence of unsustainable wildlife trade.

Confronting the Wild Orchid Trade

  

The demand for wild orchids and their derivatives continues to grow unabated in China. Plants are collected for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and for horticulture, and over-extraction now constitutes the single greatest threat to their survival in the region. Observations indicate that species selection is not taxonomically or temporally uniform: particular, high profile ‘primary’ taxa are preferentially targeted and removed from the wild first, followed by ‘secondary’ substitute taxa once supplies of the former have been exhausted. This demand has the capacity to impact natural areas far removed from the point of sale. These dynamics probably arise because species are either locally non-native or because they have already been depleted in the wild in the vicinity of the area of consumption, and is facilitated by a low cost of collection at source and well organised supply chains. The trade is clearly unsustainable but because basic inventory data for orchids is lacking in the region, it is not possible at present to determine which species face the greatest risk of extinction in the wild.

KFBG is attempting to quantify these dynamics at the heart of the trade in South China and neighbouring countries. We are comparing orchid diversity at sites that range from (near-) pristine through depleted to exhausted habitats in the wild on the one hand, versus locally representative through enriched to pooled stocks of increasingly widely sourced taxa at points of sale on the other. This is helping us to identify species or species groups at higher risk of extinction due to over-collection, and will allow for improved characterisation of trade dynamics and trends for improved regulation and mitigation. Given the enormous natural diversity of orchids in the region, and the perennial problem of accurate species identification in the absence of fertile specimens, we are applying molecular techniques (DNA barcodes) for the identification of plants and their parts.