Photo credit: John Downer

Earth Hour 2020: Rewilding our Wild

by Thomas Gomersall

Saving our planet is not just about protecting what is still relatively intact; it’s also about restoring as much as possible what has already been lost. Over the past 40 years, global wildlife populations have seen a 60 per cent decline and if the causes of this remain unaddressed, many animals will face extinction in just a matter of years, further disrupting the complex natural systems and processes that all species, including humans, need to survive.

Two of the biggest of these causes are the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss, neither of which Hong Kong is any stranger to.

Photo credit: Michèle Dépraz WWF

As a well-connected trading hub in Asia, Hong Kong has long been an important stepping stone for wildlife smugglers. Between 2013 and 2018, HK$633 million worth of illegal wildlife products were seized here, including the tusks, scales and horns of an estimated 3,200 elephants, 101,000 pangolins and 62 rhinos. And this is almost certainly only a fraction of the total volumes smuggled. The trade is showing no signs of slowing down either. In 2018, a reported 745 wildlife product seizures were made in Hong Kong, a 72 per cent increase from 2017. Yet of the more than 300 seizures made between 2013 and 2017, only one per cent of all cases resulted in prosecution.

Photo credit: Michel Gunther WWF

The illegal trade of wildlife for food (bushmeat) is of particular concern for both conservation and human health. Not only has the growing commercial demand for bushmeat emptied many tropical forests of their wildlife, but the crowded, unhygienic conditions and poor veterinary controls of many bushmeat markets provide an ideal environment for viruses — like HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS and most recently, COVID-19 — to mutate and jump from wildlife to humans.

New construction on previously undisturbed land in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Mauri Rautkari WWF

Meanwhile, with its large and growing population, Hong Kong’s infrastructure has and will inevitably continue to expand into wild places, fragmenting habitats and disrupting ecological connectivity between them. This habitat loss not only harms wildlife, but also the wellbeing of human societies through the loss of ecosystem services like clean air and water. For instance, without hillside forests, exposed soil is more easily washed away during heavy rain, causing landslides and degrading water quality in streams and reservoirs. Climate change could easily intensify this destruction in the future as rising sea levels force coastal communities higher into the mountains.

Photo credit: Tony Heald WWF

For wildlife and habitats to stand a chance of recovery, Hong Kong must step up action against both the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss. Recently, there has been some progress in the former. In 2018, legislators voted overwhelmingly to close Hong Kong’s ivory market by 2021 and dramatically increase the maximum penalty for illegal wildlife trafficking to a HK$10 million fine and 10 years in prison. Since then, there has also been an increase in prosecutions. However, actual sentences for offenders are still overly lenient and many of the prosecutions have been for small volume seizures and of low-level operatives within smuggling networks. Meanwhile, prosecutions of the powerful crime bosses behind these networks and for larger volume seizures, such as those from sea containers, rarely occur.

To truly end the wildlife trade, further and better measures are needed. The current budget for tackling it (HK$47.5 million in 2018–2019) is too small to support effective law enforcement and prosecution or to enhance investigations. WWF recommends that it be increased significantly with funds being allocated to, among other things, annual training for prosecuting wildlife crime cases, forensic technologies to provide evidence for court cases, the care and rehabilitation of live animals seized and additional permanent enforcement positions. It also recommends that the ‘legal’ wildlife trade and exotic pet trade, which are often used as covers for the illegal wildlife trade, be more heavily regulated and perhaps even shut down.

Photo credit: Doug Perrine WWF

Public awareness campaigns by WWF have already produced significant conservation wins, like the 2018 ivory ban and a 50 per cent drop in shark fin imports to Hong Kong between 2007 and 2017. Such campaigns will be vital to winning future victories against the wildlife trade, as well educating the public about its lesser-known victims (for more on this, see WWF-Hong Kong’s blog series, Species for Sale). They will also help to resolve conflicts between development and habitat restoration by educating stakeholders and the public of the need to prevent and reverse habitat loss.

Forestry rangers arrest a poacher with a hog badger. Photo credit: Adam Oswell WWF

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should prompt the immediate, permanent closure of all commercial bushmeat markets to prevent future outbreaks and the depletion of wildlife in tropical forests. In coordination with other WWF offices in the Asia-Pacific region and local authorities, WWF-Hong Kong’s regional counter-wildlife trafficking hub is working to disrupt market and trade routes in Asia, combat illicit financial flows, and implement demand reduction and behavioural change campaigns.

Photo credit: Shutterstock / A3pfamily / WWF

As much as possible, Hong Kong needs to rewild itself too. With good land-use planning, it can reforest land between its country parks and around its watersheds (particularly around reservoirs), restoring ecological connectivity. This rewilding should also include restoring mangroves and coastal wetlands to provide communities with protection from typhoons and storm surges. Combined with good climate modelling, land use planning can also identify in advance climate refugia, where displaced people can live safely in the future without degrading natural habitats. This rewilding will help to restore and protect the ecosystem services vital for our society to function, preventing the need for costly alternatives like importing water and helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change and its associated costs. Having more green spaces has also been found to improve physical and psychological wellbeing, reducing medical costs.

“People, economies, and stable governance depend on sustainable ecosystem services for survival,” says Eric Wikramanayake, WWF-Hong Kong’s Director of Wildlife and Wetlands. “Rewilding is more about sustaining and restoring these ecosystem services than about protecting individual species. So without rewilding, the future of humanity itself may be at risk.”

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