On a Virgin Atlantic trip to Cancun last week, I had the chance to fulfil a childhood dream of swimming with whale sharks – the largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 10-14 metres in length. I was concerned the tour might feel intrusive, but the Mexican guides on my boat were thoroughly responsible and considerate, following strict guidelines.
On the trip were Virgin’s very own Sir Richard Branson, who is putting his weight behind a shark-saving campaign, and representatives of conservation charity WildAid, which works to stop demand for animal products like shark fin soup and rhino horn.
I first heard about WildAid at a Born Free Foundation event last January, where the focus was on its work with tigers. Out in Cancun, the charity’s UK development director Amy Butler brought me up to speed on the charity’s various projects, starting with sharks.
I was aware of the pressure the shark fin soup trade and indiscriminate fishing has put on shark populations, but it was a shock to hear as many as 73-100million are killed per year globally. Catching sharks, slicing off their fins, and throwing them back into the water to drown or bleed to death, is cruel and wasteful enough.
But I was amazed to learn that in the whale sharks’ case, the fin is not even used to make soup (its texture isn’t quite right) – more often, the fin is simply displayed outside a restaurant in China to show that shark fin soup is served there. And surely shark fin must have an indescribably delicious flavour for the Chinese to be so obsessed with it? Wrong – the fin is added only for texture. The flavour comes from chicken stock.
As many as a third of all the world’s pelagic shark species now face extinction, with the number of some species down by 90%. It is estimated that demand for shark fin soup has trebled from 3 tons in 1970 to 11.7 tons in 2000, and as size of the middle class population of China continues to sky-rocket, the demand for the status-symbol dish will continue to increase.
So too the demand for animal products like rhino horn and tiger bone to be turned into expensive and scientifically unproven medicines. Rhino poaching in southern Africa has now surpassed historic levels, with as many as 450 rhinos killed last year – far higher than the rate four or five years ago. Tiger numbers are as low as 3,200: a 97% decrease since the early 1900s. A newer trend has emerged for the gill-rakers of manta rays to be used in Chinese medicine – a practise I had never even heard of. Charity Manta Ray of Hope says that since mantas give birth to sometimes only one pup every two-to-five years, manta populations are even more sensitive than sharks.
It seems crazy to me that a country so advanced in other fields, like science and technology, can have such backward-thinking and superstitious views on the use of animal parts in medicine, or as misplaced status symbols. But it’s not only in China: I also learned about a growing trend in Vietnam for ground up rhino horn to be taken before a night out, in order to avoid a hangover. Rhino horn powder is now so prized in Vietnam that the powder has a higher street value than cocaine.
There is some good news from China relating to sharks though. At the start of this month, after much encouragement from WildAid, the Chinese State Council agreed to phase-out the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets within the next three years. That might sound a small step (and I’d question why on earth it needs to take three years) but Amy said the message that this sends out to the people of China – many of whom may not be aware of the crisis – is strong.
Next on WildAid’s agenda is taking Chinese basketball hero and WildAid ambassador Yao Ming (the 7 ft 6 chap) to Africa to make a film to educate China about the impact of the rhino horn trade. With the physical number of rhinos and tigers now so low (only 25,000 black and white rhino left in Africa, and only 3,200 tigers left in the wild), let’s hope China and other Asian countries get the message about medicinal use of these animals a little more quickly. A three-year delay for these species might prove irreversible.