Recently, ADMCF published a new research report titled “Wild, Threatened, Farmed: Hong Kong’s Invisible Pets“. Based on two-years of research, the report provides an up-to-date account of the scale and nature of the city’s exotic pet trade. The trade is a driver of biodiversity loss and is afflicted by poor conditions that promote the transfer of disease and remain a potential risk to public, animal and environmental health. Over the next few weeks, we aim to post a series of blogs covering different aspects of the report.
A Biodiversity Concern
Today, climate change is recognised as being one of the most concerning issues we face globally. The Green House Gas effect, as it was often termed back in the late seventies, is now edging towards a point of no-return. The world has woken up to the potentially devastating impacts of global warming, and we are now seeing widespread action to mitigate and adapt. It is still not clear whether we are responding too late.
Biodiversity loss however, which is inextricably linked to climate change and is, in its own right, a deeply concerning issue, has yet to be mainstreamed and significantly actioned against.
In 2012, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established, nearly a quarter of a century after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2019, it released the first ever intergovernmental assessment of the status and trends of the natural world. A key message of the assessment was that the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems is declining faster than at any time in human history. A million species are at risk of extinction.
Why does this matter? Put simply biodiversity is the variation among living organisms and is the very foundation of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems on which we depend. It affects almost every aspect of our lives. Whilst there are many drivers for biodiversity loss (including both climate and land use change, exploitation of species, introduction of invasive species), the persistent global exploitation of thousands of species for the exotic pet trade is perhaps one of the most straightforward to address.
During compilation of our Trading Extinction reports, where we drew attention to Hong Kong’s involvement in global wildlife trafficking (another driver of biodiversity loss), we started to question the number of live animal seizures, which led us to Hong Kong’s exotic pet trade. Two years later we released the ‘Wild, Threatened, Farmed’ report.
The volume of exotic animals we found in the trade was startling. From 2015 to 2019, at least four million such animals (notably excluding aquaria) were imported from 84 countries. Of these, 70% were animals listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and three-quarters of these were from species threatened with extinction. From a list of the world’s 25+ most at-risk species of tortoises and freshwater turtles, at least 13 were found in Hong Kong’s trade, with nearly 8,000 critically endangered animals imported in these five years alone.
For some species Hong Kong was found to be leading global demand. According to CITES trade data, Hong Kong was the leading destination for the critically endangered Pancake tortoise, receiving nearly a third of all individuals internationally traded from 2015 to 2019 and nearly half of all exports of the endangered African spurred tortoise were destined for Hong Kong.
Even species functionally extinct in the wild were found in the local trade. Purportedly captive-bred tortoises were imported from nations without any known or authorised breeding operations. Others have been landed in numbers exceeding strict quotas in their source nations.
As we note in the report, the large-scale extraction of exotic animals from their ecosystems for the global pet trade is exerting extreme and highly targeted pressure on thousands of species. From tortoises sourced from the deserts of Togo and the steppes of Uzbekistan, to frogs gathered from streams in Madagascar and parrots netted from the rainforests of Indonesia and Amazonia, Hong Kong’s exotic pet trade has drawn all manner of animals into the city.
While the original aim of our research was to consolidate the latest available information, data and insights on the exotic trade for pets through an environmental/sustainability lens, it soon became clear that there are a myriad of concerns around the trade, encompassing animal health, animal welfare and public health issues. The large-scale presence of unsuitable species in the pet trade contributes to these concerns. For example, the popular and endangered African Spurred tortoise can live for up to 80-100 years and weigh in the vicinity of 90kg. Over 119,000 were imported from 2015 to2019. The vulnerable Aldabra tortoise can live up to 150 years and weigh in at 250kg, with 6,300 imported over the same period.
A review of the sufficiency of regulations in Hong Kong further highlights the considerable room for reform and enhancement.
While we were undertaking the research, the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the exotic animal trade, presenting an opportune time to review, reorient and consolidate fragmented and outdated legislation by enhancing the One Health approach to overseeing the trade. Such an approach aims to minimise risks to public and animal health, ensure animal welfare and, importantly, protect local and global biodiversity.
 IPBES (2019) Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Available at: https://ipbes.net/global-assessment.