Ban of shark's fin cargo by Air China a big sign of change

A photo taken in 2013 showing hundreds of shark's fins being dried in the sun on the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong. Conservation group WildAid has called on Hong Kong to do more to stamp out the shark's fin trade there, which it said was "e
A photo taken in 2013 showing hundreds of shark's fins being dried in the sun on the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong. Conservation group WildAid has called on Hong Kong to do more to stamp out the shark's fin trade there, which it said was "essentially unregulated".PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It marks China's transformation from a market in illegal wildlife products to being part of solution

BEIJING • Air China has become the first airline in mainland China to ban shark's fin cargo, marking a dramatic shift in attitudes towards trade in endangered wildlife there and throwing a lifeline to shark populations threatened with imminent extinction.

The news, released late last Friday, came just a week after China also announced plans to ban its domestic ivory trade, a landmark decision of vital importance in ending the epidemic of elephant poaching in Africa.

It marks the country's gradual transformation from being the biggest source of the problem - as the largest market in illegal wildlife products - to becoming a major part of the solution.

Mr Alex Hofford, a wildlife activist from conservation group WildAid in Hong Kong, said: "Scientists estimate that fins from up to 73 million sharks a year are used for shark's fin soup, with much of the trade in shark's fin destined for China."

He applauded Air China for taking "an ethical stance" to help protect sharks and oceans. "It is a bold move and this is likely to have a huge and lasting impact on shark populations and marine ecosystems worldwide," he said.

At least 35 other airlines and 17 global container shipping lines around the world have also signed up for the campaign to ban the shipment of shark's fin, including Chinese state-owned shipping giant China Cosco Shipping Corporation in July.

Mr Hofford added that the decision by China's national flag carrier "puts FedEx to shame" - the United States multinational courier company has resisted repeated calls to take a similar step, despite a petition signed by 300,000 people, and an appeal from a coalition of animal welfare conservation groups which expressed concerns its service could be used to carry fins of endangered shark species - a violation of the international Convention on Trade in Endangered Species.

Courier company United Parcel Service bowed to pressure to ban shark's fin shipments in August 2015, acknowledging concerns about the authorities' enforcement capabilities and the adequacy of visual inspections to determine if the fins being shipped belonged to endangered species. Rival DHL took a similar step in 2014.

At least 35 other airlines and 17 global container shipping lines around the world have also signed up for the campaign to ban the shipment of shark's fin, including Chinese state-owned shipping giant China Cosco Shipping Corporation in July.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been moving to restrict the trade in shark's fin for several years.

In 2013, as part of its campaign against government corruption and extravagance, it banned shark's fin soup from official banquets.

Last year, China issued data showing shark's fin imports had declined by 82 per cent between 2011 and 2014. WildAid reported that wholesale prices of shark's fin had declined by 50 per cent to 67 per cent, from US$270 to US$300 (S$388 to S$432) a kilogram in 2011 to US$90 to US$150 in 2014.

Just a decade ago, though, most Chinese people were oblivious to the issue, with many not even knowing the soup - known in Chinese as "fish wing" soup - was made with shark's fin.

But attitudes began to change after WildAid enlisted Chinese professional basketball player Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets, to front a public awareness campaign in 2006.

In a statement, Air China Cargo said it has a "longstanding commitment to playing (their) role in a more sustainable world" and acknowledged that the global shark trade was unsustainable.

WildAid called on Hong Kong to do more to stamp out the shark's fin trade there, which it said was "essentially unregulated".

Air China's decision will also put more pressure on China Southern Airlines, based in Guangzhou, which is emerging as a hub of shark's fin trade in its own right, almost as big as Hong Kong.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Ban of shark's fin cargo by Air China a big sign of change'. Print Edition | Subscribe