Saving elephants, as followers of The Independent’s Christmas Appeal will know, seems to be a harder and harder task as the killing in Africa gets more difficult to control. But there is one particular way forward which offers hope, and which at first may seem surprising, and that is through saving sharks.
A giant vegetarian land mammal wouldn’t at first sight seem to have much in common with a deep-sea predator. But elephants and sharks share a cruel curiosity of fate: they both have bodily protuberances which humans find so valuable they will kill both sets of creatures to get them.
With elephants, or course, it’s their ivory tusks, now in booming demand especially among the rising middle class of China. With sharks, it’s their fins, an essential ingredient in what has long been another fad of wealthy Chinese: shark’s fin soup.
While elephants are killed in their thousands, sharks are killed in their millions for the soup. The slaughter is having a drastic effect on shark populations, with 32 per cent of deep-sea species threatened with extinction.
“Shark finning” is a pitiless form of fishing involving cutting off the fins while the fish are still alive and then throwing them back into the sea. The reason is a pair of shark fins can sell in Asia for $700 a kilo – and the less valuable shark bodies would be an encumbrance on a fisherman’s boat.
But in July this year the European Union brought in a regulation ending the practice, and in future all EU boats will have to land sharks with their fins still attached.
Ali Hood, of Britain’s Shark Trust, sees this as a major step forward, not least because the EU is a big player in the shark market, with Spain alone having the third-biggest shark catch in the world, and also because the move will give the EU the moral authority to persuade other nations to do the same. But the biggest obstacle to lessening the global shark slaughter is the demand from China.
In 2006, the inventive conservation body WildAid, based in San Francisco and headed by British-born Peter Knights, began a campaign to make the Chinese public realise that shark’s fin soup represents a big conservation problem.
The campaign took off when in 2009 China’s best-known sports star, basketball player Yao Ming, appeared in a film saying he would no longer eat the soup and used the slogan “Mei yu mai mai, jiu mei yu sha hai”, meaning “When the buying stops, the killing can too.”
The campaign appears to be having a significant effect: according to WildAid, consumption of shark fin soup has dropped by between 50 and 70 per cent in the last two years, and this month, the Chinese government banned shark fin soup from state banquets.
Now WildAid is rolling out a campaign, based on the shark fin ads, to lessen demand for ivory and rhino horn by making it socially unacceptable. Its first short film, featuring Yao Ming again, alongside Prince William and David Beckham, will air in China next month.
Mr Knights says: “The slogan and the sentiment, of connecting the buying and the killing, is already understood throughout China… And because elephants are more charismatic than sharks, and because the international profile is so much higher on the ivory issue, we really believe it can happen.”
He hopes the Chinese Government might even consider banning the sale of ivory within two years.