A walk through Hong Kong's traditional Chinese medicine district

By Dr. Phil Molloy

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was drawn to the city's bustling traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) district by a mixture of professional interest and personal curiosity. As a conservationist I wanted to see what marine animals are commonly sold; as a tourist I wanted to take in the sheer spectacle of it all. I wasn't disappointed on either front. 

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It's the scale that gets you. The district encompasses many city blocks: Traders rush to and fro with curious-looking creatures (or bits of them), shop owners busily arrange new stock in elaborate displays, usually while shouting at each other, and a cacophony of smells (not all of them pleasant) leap at you from barrels of alien-looking objects. 

The first shop I walked into was about the size of a badminton court. A long display case ran its length at one side, behind which stood a beaming shopkeeper. The case teemed with lavishly presented jars and bowls of dried fish, abalone (snail-like creatures that, once dried, resemble frilly rocks), lizards on sticks, deer tails, and tortoise shells. The floor was barely visible beneath overflowing cartons. 

The front of the store was open to the street, where more barrels covereed the busy pavement. The floor-to-ceiling shelves had been set up on the sidewalk. They held glass containers of dried sea cucumbers. (Imagine barbequing a dill pickle… and forgetting about it. That's what dried sea cucumber look like. It's also not far from what they smell like.) The back wall was clearly the shop's pièce de résistance – a gaudy display of shark fins stretched across the entire expanse apart from a doorway. 

As I wandered on, I encountered the same riot of specimens, shop after shop, street after street. As a conservationist, I couldn't help but bristle at the sight of barrels of seahorses and walls of shark fins. Over 40 million sharks are killed per year for their fins. It's no surprise, then, that sharks are in decline. (Incidentally, sharks only kill about 40 people per year – statistically, they're less dangerous than going to the toilet!)

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But you wouldn't think it as you wander around the Hong Kong's market, taking in displays of fins the size of Smart cars and shops selling them by the sackful. Shark fins sell at over US $350 per pound. They're used to give texture to soups served at weddings and other ceremonial events. The soup is considered a sign of prestige and wealth among many Chinese; having a wedding without it is considered a no-no. 

Or at least it was. Several conservation groups, such as Hong Kong's Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, as well as Bloom and Shark Truth, are pushing shark fin-free wedding fashion. They're educating soon-to-be-wed Chinese couples about the plight of sharks and encouraging them to explore alternative wedding fare. 

As a member of the Project Seahorse team I was also captivated by the vast numbers of seahorses and their relatives. My visit to Hong Kong followed on the heels of a trip to the Philippines, where I had been working with colleagues at Project Seahorse Foundation. If prizes were awarded for Best Seahorse Spotter, those guys would win them all. Yet, even with their expertise, during the several hours we spent looking for seahorses — in areas known for their seahorse populations — we found a single animal. 

My point is there aren't many seahorses. Yet in Hong Kong's TCM market, I was confronted with barrel loads of the scaly blighters. I heard the voice of my colleague, Sarah Foster, in my head: "Each fishing trawler may only catch one or two seahorses per fishing trip as bycatch, but each trawler does thousands of trips and there are thousands of trawlers. It adds up." No kidding!

But why were they here? I asked a particularly forthcoming shopkeeper. She told me that they are sold as powder or whole to make a tonic. 

"For food, or as medicine?" I asked.

After a slightly awkward pause, she explained that they're used for a variety of ailments but generally they "improve blood flow." The penny dropped — seahorses are nature's Viagra. I've since learned that they're used to treat a number of conditions typically associated with aging. 

I don't know if they work, but from a conservation standpoint it doesn't really matter. What's important is that seahorses need to be caught in a sustainable manner. In theory, this should always be the case: seahorses are listed in Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This means that a country can only trade seahorses if they can prove that the seahorses were collected in a manner that doesn't harm the populations from which they came. 

The reality is that many seahorse populations are overexploited. A large part of our work at Project Seahorse is to help countries meet CITES regulations. The trade in seahorses is not going to disappear; instead of working to stop it, our job is to help people to trade carefully and responsibly.

Until visiting the TCM district I hadn't really grasped the scale of some of the issues we're tackling at Project Seahorse. And if I haven't – and I'm a marine conservationist – I feel fairly sure that most people reading this haven't either.  If you're in Hong Kong, go and visit the TCM district.

Dr. Phil Molloy is a postdoctoral fellow with Project Seahorse.