While doing research into animal welfare legislation in Hong Kong in 2009, Ms Amanda Whitfort of HKU’s Law Faculty realised that a related issue was in urgent need of addressing too – conservation laws. An animal law expert, she applied for Knowledge Exchange funding for an Impact Project in 2011, and together with an interdisciplinary team of experts, began studying five key Ordinances with a view to assessing whether they give adequate protection to our natural heritage.

The Ordinances included the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, the Forests and Countryside Ordinance, the Fisheries Protection Ordinance, and the Country Parks and Marine Parks Ordinances. The conclusion that Ms Whitfort and her team came to was that the legislation was inadequate and outdated. “It is hardly surprising,” she said, “some of the laws go back to 1870. This is the first time there has been a formal review of the laws protecting our native wild species.

“Attitudes to conservation have changed and some laws are no longer appropriate. For instance the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance was not drafted from a conservation standpoint but to stop hunting,” she said. “So it does not protect those animals at conservation risk of having their habitats concreted over, but only those that were historically hunted. The law also excludes fish, leaving rare species unprotected.”

The review will contribute to the formulation of Hong Kong’s first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan as required under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The authors of the review included conservation consultant Dr Andrew Cornish, wildlife management consultant Rupert Griffiths and Dr Fiona Woodhouse from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They sought expert advice from ecology professors in HKU’s School of Biological Science, Professor David Dudgeon, Professor Yvonne Sadovy and Professor Gray Argust Williams as well as input from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

Ironically some species that are actually harmful to the environment are being protected by the current laws, while others – such as the endemic Hong Kong Paradise Fish, which is rare and at risk – are not.

Ms Amanda Whitfort
From left: Ecological Consultant Dr Andrew Cornish; Ms Amanda Whitfort, Associate Professor of Law; and Dr Fiona Woodhouse, Deputy Director (Welfare), Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong).
Science and law together

“The project brought science and law together and benefited from a clear dialogue. The two disciplines don’t usually speak the same language,” Ms Whitfort said. “We consulted ecology and biodiversity experts on the problems, formulated legislative solutions, then refined them through scientific input.”

The team’s primary recommendation is to update the list of animals protected by the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance. Some 500 species of terrestrial animals have been identified as being of conservation concern during the last two decades, yet the Ordinance has not been updated since 1996. “A list of species of conservation concern should be drawn up and used to inform and update our local laws including the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance,” Ms Whitfort said. “The list should be based on best-practice international criteria such as those used to develop the global Red List of Endangered Species.

“Ironically some species that are actually harmful to the environment are being protected by the current laws, while others – such as the endemic Hong Kong Paradise Fish, which is rare and at risk – are not,” said Ms Whitfort.

Invasive alien species

With this in mind, the team also recommended that a list of invasive alien species be drawn up. Ms Whitfort said: “HKU scientists have identified numerous non-native invasive species, which have established themselves locally and which may be a danger to native species. The Government is required under the international Convention on Biological Diversity to come up with a plan to control these non-native species.”

Not all legislation was found to be inadequate. The Country Parks Ordinance is basically sound, although enforcement of its laws against poaching needs to be improved. But, while the Forests and Countryside Ordinance has historically protected plants of value to collectors, it does not identify plants that are of conservation concern. Also, the team would like to see protection extended to cover rare plants on private as well as government land.

The Fisheries Protection Ordinance has been improved – trawling was banned last year – but “protection legislation should be extended to vulnerable marine fish outside of the tiny area of marine parks,” said Ms Whitfort. “Rare freshwater fish are also in need of protection. At least 20 species are currently at risk and another four have already gone extinct.”

In addition, the review recommends that a study is done to determine the optimum harvesting capacity for sustainable fishing and to develop new regulations for recreational fishing.

In all, the team made 15 recommendations, aimed at informing the Government’s formulation of its Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, due for implementation in 2015.

Next on the agenda, Ms Whitfort will be conducting research into the trade in endangered species through Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is a major conduit for illegal trade and the courts are not taking it seriously enough.”

The very high market value of the Golden-coin turtle is driving its illegal capture in Hong Kong.
Incense trees have been widely chopped down in Hong Kong in recent years for making agarwood, which is a highly priced traditional Chinese medicine.