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- Pangolins -

- The Threat -

Pangolins, or “scaly anteaters”, are the world’s only scaly mammals. There are four Asian species and four African species, ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered.


Trade is mainly to China and Vietnam, where the meat is considered a delicacy and the scales are used in Chinese medicine. Increased demand has resulted in an estimated >1 million poached from the wild in the past decade. In June 2016, HK authorities intercepted a 4-tonne shipment of pangolin scales, worth about HK$14 million. 

Pangolin scales seized by Hong Kong Customs. Image from Press release, July 29, 2016.

- Actions Taken -

As pangolins rarely survive in captivity, conservation efforts are needed rapidly. All species have recently been listed under Appendix I in CITES, the highest level of protection available.


Our lab is currently analysing pangolin trade data in order to understand true import, export and seizure trends. However, further protection is needed in the countries of origin by means of enforcing the existing laws against capture and trade. 


- European Eels -

- The Threat -

Since the decline of the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) in the 1990s, European eels (Anguilla anguilla) have been increasingly transported from Europe to Asia to stock eel farms.

In 2007, A.anguilla was listed under Appendix II of CITES, increasing its protection against import and export. 


However, the issue lies in the identification of the juvenile stage of the Anguilla eels, the "glass eel". The morphology of these glass eels is similar among Anguilla, while only A. anguilla is CITES-listed. The difficulty in species identification allows for easier illegal trade, hindering law enforcement.

European eel seized by Hong Kong Customs. Image from Press release, March 8, 2016.

- Actions Taken -

Despite the increased protection of this species, our team at HKU published a study presenting the first confirmed genetic identification of exported A. anguilla eels to Asia. This recent identification stresses the need for stricter enforcements on countries of both import and export to prevent future illegal trade.


- Helmeted Hornbills -

- The Threat -

Found in many of Southeast Asia's primary rainforests, the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) bird is critically endangered. This is mainly due to two issues: the destruction of its habitat and available nesting trees, and the illegal trade of the bird's 'casque' (a solid keratin structure above the beak).


With all commercial trade illegal under CITES App.I, seizures of 2,800 casques have been made between 2011-2017, mainly in Indonesia (a country of origin) and at China/HK borders (transit/destination regions), (EIA, 2017).

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Helmeted Hornbill casques seized by Hong Kong Customs. Image by C. Hatten

- Actions Taken -

As it is unclear where these birds are being poached from, our team are developing a genetic tool to determine the provenance of poached casques, for potential enforcement use across the species range.


Funded by the National Geographic Society and Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, this project relies on collaborative efforts between other members of the Helmeted Hornbill Working Group (an IUCN SSC Specialist Group) for field sampling across the species range (Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Brunei) and inception workshops aimed at tackling questions such as population numbers, trade trends, and enforcement efforts.


- Yellow Crested Cockatoos -

- The Threat -

Local populations of non-native Yellow Crested Cockatoos (Cacatua sulphurea) represent ~10% of the global population, of which there are approximately 2000 left in the wild. This critically endangered species is thought to have originated in Hong Kong as a result of the pet trade.


Selling captive birds in the domestic market is legal, however, trade in wild individuals is illegal, as this species is regulated under CITES App.I. This creates the possibility for laundering illegal birds into the legal market, making it unclear whether individuals in Hong Kong's pet markets are from the wild or captive origin. 

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Yellow-Crested Cockatoos in Hong Kong. Image by Dr Tim Bonebrake

- Actions Taken -

As well as investigating the ecology and biology of the local population in Hong Kong, our team is developing an enforcement tool for determining the origin of individuals sold in the market, using stable isotope analysis based on the diet of captive and wild-caught birds. 


- Live Reef Food Fish -

- The Threat -

Hong Kong plays a large import/re-export role in the Live Reef Food Fish Trade (LRFFT) from around southeast Asia. Large quantities are consumed locally within the city, but there is also a large, unmonitored, proportion being exported to China, with the number of sales in China far exceeding number of permits. 


However, although the LRFFT is not necessarily illegal, it is highly unsustainable. This is owed to a lack of fishing management and control, with traders showing little or no interest in the long term effects of their over-exploitation on fish stocks.

Certain large fish, like grouper, are particularly vulnerable to being overfished due to their late sexual maturity, longevity and specific spawning aggregation behaviours.


Live reef fish in a seafood restaurant tank in Hong Kong. Image by C. Hatten

- Actions Taken -

Several popular species, including the Humphead Wrasse (HHW), Leopard Coral Trout, Square-tailed Coral Grouper and Camouflage Grouper, are threatened/near threatened according to the IUCN Red-List.

However only one species, the HHW, has been regulated in Hong Kong under Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, Cap. 586, where the only legal export under CITES is from Indonesia.

Since CITES has improved regulations on the HHW, import and re-export data within Hong Kong and China has been minimal, suggesting the occurrence of illegal trade. 

Although much is yet to be achieved in order to disrupt the various stages of the supply chain, support, awareness, scientific research and commitments from organisations such as Hong Kong's International Airport to work towards sustainability are providing a positive outlook for the future of the LRFFT.


- Shark fin -

- The Threat -

Hong Kong imports account for approximately 50% of the world’s Shark fin trade, which is responsible for the deaths of 70 millions sharks a year. It is therefore the world’s largest Shark fin trading market.

Since sharks reach sexual maturity late (about 10 + years), their risk of extinction is greater than many other traded animals.

Shark fin species-specific ID is often difficult in this part of the world as Chinese traders use Chinese-given names due to their market value. But the relationship between the market category and the species is unclear, making it difficult to ID the most heavily traded species.

Smooth Hammerhead shark fin seized by Hong Kong Customs. Image from Press release, March 8, 2016.

- Actions Taken -



Although some species are still legal to trade, shark finning is an unsustainable industry as many species are endangered or declining globally. Pressure from conservation activists and the growing awareness of the younger generation has enabled the decrease in shark fin sales not only in Hong Kong but also in China, where the biggest markets are.



Our lab has worked with the government department, AFCD (Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department), identifying the species of individual shark fins seized from illegal shipments by Hong Kong Customs. The majority of these fins proved to be from endangered species. We are also working with local NGOs and other departments at HKU to investigate new tools for rapid analysis of species at the point of seizure, as it is often very difficult to identify one species from another using fin morphology alone.


Species receiving protection from CITES against free trade can be found here.




- Corals -

- The Threat -

Corals are widely traded around the world for ornamental purposes like jewellery. This is particularly common in parts of Asia, where Red Corals are the most highly prized, due to their perceived healing properties. Some corals sell for a high price of up to HKD$14,000 per gram, so fishermen in places like China, Japan, Taiwan and India routinely harvest these corals under the guise of legal fishing operations, often using destructive fishing methods such as sodium cyanide fishing.


Illegally harvesting corals causes detrimental impacts on the coral reef, as corals play an important part in providing structure, habitat and nutritional benefit to many other species.

Image by Dr D. Baker

Corals may also take many years to grow back to its original size after harvesting so, as well as reducing wild population numbers, this trade is unsustainable.

- Actions Taken -

CITES regulates trade in many different coral varieties, including: black, blue, red/pink, stony, organ pipe, fire and lace corals.


Analysis of CITES coral trade data reveals the massive scale of this trade, and import/export volume discrepancies amounting to tens of thousands of live corals each year. 


In 2014 alone, 102,768 CITES-listed live corals were declared exported to Hong Kong by a total of 12 countries.

Hong Kong, however, reported importation of only 68,809 live corals in 2014.


Many of these corals are harvested from the wild, and some species are difficult to differentiate and positively identify.


With over 100,000 live corals coming in to the territory each year, there is scope for misreporting, undocumented sale, and unsustainable trade that must be closely monitored.

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