A local conservation group has urged the Hong Kong Trade Development Council to stop facilitating the wildlife trade on its online marketplace, after discovering that the website provides business details for shark fin and ivory suppliers.

As the international marketing arm for Hong Kong-based suppliers and traders, HKTDC’s online marketplace connects over 130,000 suppliers and more than 1.6 million buyers.

WildAid Hong Kong criticised the government-funded council for “turning a blind eye to the exploitation of endangered species”, since some of the products likely come from illegal poaching due to poor regulation on the global fishing and ivory industries.

“A shark fin belongs on the back of a shark, not in a bowl, and an ivory tusk belongs on an elephant’s face, not on someone’s shelf,” WildAid said on its Facebook page.


The council does not state the shark species of the trade items on its website, so it is unclear whether the council has breached Hong Kong laws and international conventions.

However, WildAid argued that fins of illegally finned and endangered sharks often end up in shipments, including sharks that are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Interpol has also advised that companies trading in these fins may be implicated in a crime by aiding and abetting the illegal trade.

“Until the legality and sustainability of sources of shark fin can be adequately accounted for,” wrote WildAid in a statement, “Interpol recommends all companies involved in the shark fin supply chain, including online trade portals such as HKTDC, to suspend their involvement in the trade as a precautionary measure.”

shark fin trade development council
Shark fin trade item on Trade Development Council portal. Photo: TDC website.

Likewise, descriptions of many suspected elephant ivory products are vaguely worded on the website. Therefore, it is unclear whether the products abide by international wildlife conventions. In one case, a supplier describes their product as an “ivory elephant sculpture”.

“Ivory traders are very careful and they know how to use the loopholes to their benefits,” said WildAid spokesperson Alex Hofford.

Only one supplier on the HKTDC website states that their elephant ivories are not listed on CITES, which has limited effectiveness in preventing illicit wildlife trade due to difficulties in enforcement.

“Without expensive radiocarbon analysis, it is impossible to distinguish legal ivory from illegal by sight alone,” said Hofford. “It is impossible to verify whether ivory carvers and wholesalers listed on HKTDC are not selling ‘new’ stock by pretending it is old stock from before the 1989 CITES ban.”

Business ethics

The council responded on WildAid’s Facebook page on Monday evening: “The HKTDC operates according to the laws of Hong Kong and international conventions, and we encourage a sustainability-conscious approach to trade and business.”

But the conservation group was unconvinced. “Abiding by laws of Hong Kong and by international conventions is the minimum society requires from HKTDC,” the group wrote in reply, citing the government’s pledge issued in 2013 that the authorities would “adopt sustainability-conscious food consumption”, including “no consumption of shark fins”. Aiming to set an example, the Hong Kong government enacted a shark fin ban for its internal banquets and encouraged publicly funded organisations to “adopt similar practices”.

“As a Hong Kong government funded body, it is time HKTDC adopts the same ethical standards as the rest of the government,” the group urged.

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Classified by CITES as one of nine countries of priority concern, Hong Kong is a major market and transit point for smuggled ivory. In 2003, eight tonnes of ivory were confiscated in Hong Kong – 14 percent of the global total. This sum suggests that large hauls may be passing through Hong Kong undetected.

Hong Kong’s shark fin trade was supplied by at least 130 countries between 1998 and 2013. Of the 14 shark species that account for 40 percent of fins auctioned in Hong Kong, half have been labelled as “vulnerable” or “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong and the Bloom Association in 2014 found that 91 percent of over 1,000 respondents agreed that the government should regulate the international shark-related trade. Another survey, conducted by HKU Public Opinion Poll in the same year, found that 75 percent of the 1,021 respondents supported a comprehensive ban on elephant ivory sales.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.