Illegal wildlife trade along the Burma-China border - in pictures (full set)

My photo story which exposes the illegal wildlife trade taking place on both sides of the Burma-China border was published in The Guardian newspaper today.

They used eleven of my photos in their Environment section. Here's the full set.

Illegal Wildlife Trade in Mong La, Shan State Special Region Four, Burma

MONG LA, SHAN STATE SPECIAL REGION FOUR, BURMA - The town of Mong La in Burma's Shan state, close to the border with China, is at the crossroads of illegal wildlife trade routes that are sucking the forests, jungles and plains of India, Burma, Laos and Thailand dry of their native animals and plants – many of them endangered.

Mong La is a notorious sin city of a border town, a lawless black hole where the trafficking of arms, drugs and women is rife. In order to reach it, you have to travel illegally by motorbike across an international border, along a bumpy dirt track that winds its way through rubber plantations and leafy jungle.

It takes around 20 minutes, and along the way you pass impromptu checkpoints set up by local people, ethnic militia and the National Democratic Alliance army, before finally being admitted by Burmese government troops.

I spent the day exploring the illegal wildlife markets and restaurants, but it was only after exiting Burma in the late afternoon that I realised that the real story was to be found on the Chinese side of the border.

At the market in Mong La, a Noah's ark of endangered animal products can be bought, including tiger skins, thick chunks of elephant hide and tusks, pangolin scales, clouded leopard pelts, flying squirrels, masked palmed civet cat, Asiatic moon bear skins, and Tibetan antelope skulls.

For example a tiger skin for sale in Mong La can be bought for around RMB50,000 (£4,700). But over the border in China, that same skin can fetch upwards of RMB200,000 (£18,900).

Many of those same items were also available in the Chinese border town of Daluo, but marked up significantly.

The illegal wildlife trade in Burma is nothing new.

For decades, NGOs and governments have known the Burmese border regions with China are a problem area.

[Elephant hide.]

[Pangolin scales.]

[Masked palm civet, sold as bushmeat.]

[A giant flying squirrel and green pigeons. Both endangered.]

[Flying squirrel.]

[Ivory for sale.]

[Blocks of ivory for sale as investment.]

[Tiger claws made of ivory, with Burmese and Thai currency notes.]

[A general view of the town of Mong La.]

[Asiatic black bear, with clouded leaopard cat.]

[A monkey for sale as a menu item at a wildlife restaurant in Mong La.]


Illegal Wildlife Trade in Daluo, Yunnan Province, China 

DALUO, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA - What's not known, however, is how a thriving illegal market in the body parts of critically endangered species for Chinese medicine can flourish within just a few metres from China's official border crossing with Burma – on the Chinese side.

[Tourist guides offer tours of the "Golden Triangle Scenic Area", just in front of the Chinese border post at Daluo.]

[Pangolin scales.]

The inconvenience and risk of getting to Mong La has prompted this parallel market in illegal wildlife trade products to spring up, catering to disappointed tourists who may feel comfortable buying illegal wildlife products, but are averse to evading the China government's formalities of immigration and customs checks.

[Fake tiger claw, bear gall bladder and sex pills.]

The Chinese government has for decades has been a friend and ally of the ethnic militias along its Burmese border.

But since the opening up of Burma, and the arrival of a more open government, China's traditional support for those militias has waned, and so now China is supporting the official Burmese government in Naypiydaw.

[Fake tiger paw.]

[Bear bile, bear gall bladder (top) and elephant skin for sale in Daluo.]

This shift has seen Mong La dropped from the list of designated tourist destinations approved by the tourism bureau of the Chinese province that borders Burma, Yunnan.

Consequently, disappointed tourists headed to Mong La are being turned back at the border, and instead some of them make do with the market in Daluo to buy their illegal wildlife products.

[Slow loris feet key rings.]

One trader in Daluo, who refused to give her name, said: “If the police come, we just hide these things.

As long as [these illegal wildlife parts] are not on public view it is OK. We just put it all back out for sale when the police have gone.”



Ivory Destruction In The United States, And Why Crushing Is Not Enough...

Back in June I was in Manila, Philippines, photographing the wildlife authorities there crush and burn five tons of ivory.

Last week I was in Denver, Colorado, observing the United States do exactly the same, except that this time they only crushed the ivory, but didn't burn it.

I think this was a big mistake.

Incineration is a final step to remove any lingering doubts that the crushed ivory will ever be returned to the market.

Once in full force, the crushing machine looked like a ivory waterfall.

Federal cops guarded the stockpile at dawn before it was destroyed.

This US Fish & Wildlife Service officer carried a tusk like it was his own baby. Compassion for a dead elephant, perhaps?

African 'art' curios.

Ivory trinkets and tusks await their fate next to the crusher in the background.

US Fish & Wildlife Service officials place the tusks in an elaborate pyramid prior to crushing.

The tusk pile and the crusher.

Offloading from a flatbed truck, a big perspex box full of small ivory trinkets and jewellery such as bracelets and necklaces.

Much of this ivory jewellery was seized from US tourists returning home from abroad with illegal ivory.

The United Nations of Trinkets; Asia, Africa and the Middle East in one image.

A Chinese Guanyin statue in a cardboard box, missing her head.

A tacky Japanese ivory Geisha doll.

Made in bloody Hong Kong, unfortunately.

According to estimates, 30,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks.

Ivory gravel being shovelled by wildlife officials.

The ivory gravel will be used for 'education' purposes under the CITES agreement. And now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will inherit the headache of secure storage from US Fish & Wildlife. The Zoos and aquariums have been instructed to make 'monuments' for elephant conservation education. Call me cynical, but I'm sure they will be seeing an upsurge Chinese mainland tourists (many of them armed with small pen knives or chisels in their pockets) come through their gates once these monuments to long deceased elephants are open to the public.

A wildlife official points out the problem in Congo, with a forest elephant tusk.

Crushed ivory.

A close up of crushed ivory.

A big piece of crushed ivory.

And finally, a couple of photos from Hong Kong. Taken at Star Company on Hollywood Road, by the escalator, to be precise.

These pairs of earrings made from so-called pre 1989 (ie pre-ban) ivory are tiny and worth around US$50 (the floral studs) and US$60 (the small elephants) respectively.

Just saying...!


Ivory Destruction In Manila.

Today I was at a Philippines government event to destroy five tonnes of confiscated ivory.

People here are calling it the 'Big Crush'.

They used an excavator to crush the elephant tusks.

And a steam roller too.

Bits large and small were flying around all over the place, and I seriously almost got hit in the head by a flying tusk!

No one was wearing safety equipment. No hard hats or goggles in sight.

The five tonnes of ivory was taken from the confiscated ivory that had been smuggled into the Philippines from Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania.

The Philippines is a large ivory-consuming country in its own right, as well as a major smuggling transit point for ivory on its way to China.

Under the terms of the United Nations C.I.T.E.S. (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement, the ivory has to be 'put beyond use' if it is not to be kept in storage or used for conservation or education purposes.

It was certainly 'put beyond use' today.

The initiative was organised by the 'Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau' (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) of the Philippines government.

I just wish the Hong Kong government would do the right thing by the elephants, and follow the Philippines example in burning their ivory stockpile.

No one knows for sure, (and that's part of the problem), but some estimates point to them sitting on 20+ tonnes - all which I belive must be burnt too.


I won the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) photojournalism competition!

Years of hard work paid off this week.

Usually I don't enter competitions, but this year I decided to. And so it happened that I actually won another one!

This time an Award for Excellence in the 'Environment (Nature, Wildlife) Picture Story' category of the 'Best of Photojournalism' competition held by the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA. The NPPA is the United States' most respected association for visual journalists (photojournalists, TV news cameramen/women, editors etc). The award was for a set of overfishing images. (Click SEE MORE under the underwater image to bring up the slideshow).

Most of the pictures were taken by me on assignment for Greenpeace International, but a couple towards the end of the slideshow were taken on assignment for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), or on freelance assignments in Asia.

The images highlight the industrial barbarity of the fishing industry that is wiping out the tunas and the sharks from our oceans...


My 'Compressor Diver/Overfishing' Image Wins Best Feature Award In FCCT/OnAsia Photo Contest!

What a great start to the week. I just got word that I won a photo contest with this picture:-

It won the Best Photo Feature award in the annual Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) and OnAsia Photo Contest.

I feel really honoured since the the contest this year attracted submissions from more than 375 photographers around the world with over 6,000 images. You can see a gallery of the some the fantastic images by the great photographers that I was up against, here.

The winning photo was taken on assignment with Greenpeace International (GPI). A full set of images that this single image was taken from can be viewed on the GPI Facebook page, here.


Shark Finning In Taiwan

Here's a set of shark fin images from Taiwan, that I've not had the chance to give the proper airing that they deserve.

I've been meaning to get these photos out, before they get too old.

Welcome to DongGang fish market, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

These images were taken on assignment with Greenpeace International as a part of their East Asia oceans campaign.

Often times, when I mention the shark fin trade in Taiwan people ask me, "But what about the 'fins-attached' policy?"

I tell them that on the day that I went there, and these photos were taken on 04 November 2012, I didn't see much of that, to be honest.

But here's one picture that does show a bit of that policy in action.

Note the mono-filament plastic fishing line that is binding the 'log' to the fins.

On the whole I saw mostly unattached fins.

I certainly didn't see a single inspector from the Taiwan Fisheries Agency.

But to be fair, here's an image I took on a Taiwanese longliner in 2011 that shows a frozen oceanic whitetip shark with it's fins attached to prove that it does actually go on. But to what extent, I don't know. For the record, this species is newly-protected by CITES.

Unloading 'logs'.

Thresher shark fins being bagged up.

Finally, a poor hammerhead shark that has had his cephalofoils, or hammers, sliced off.


Sorry. Not very uplifting for a Friday afternoon, I do apologise.

Have a great, shark-free, weekend...


Hong Kong Children Stage Elephant Ivory Conservation Event

It seems last week's ivory seizure in Hong Kong, roused some indignation in the city's kids.

I wonder if these kids will ever be lucky enough to see an elephant in the wild like I have?

I hope so. But I doubt it if elephant poaching continues at current rates.

It's not just the sharks that need our help.

Please check the IFAW blog for more information on how we can help the elephants too.


Yesterday Sharks, Today Elephants... When Will The Killing Stop?

This is getting more than depressing.

Yesterday I was on a rooftop surrounded by the body parts of between 1,000 to 4,000 sharks.

Today I am in a customs facilty facing at the tusks of around 100 to 200 elephants.

We live in sick and twisted times. Between the corrupt Africans behind this, and the ignorant Chinese elite who by the stuff, we have marriage made in hell. A really big problem.

Below is my photo caption...

HONG KONG - 779 seized ivory tusks are seen laid out on the floor at a Hong Kong Government Customs and Excise facility in Tsing Yi, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China, 04 January 2013.

Hong Kong customs officers seized 03 January 2013 a total of 779 elephant tusks weighing 1,300 kilograms and worth roughly one million euro.

The tusks were hidden in a container of "architectural stones" arriving in Hong Kong from Kenya in Africa.

It is believed that the ivory was bound for mainland China where an increasingly affluent middle class is driving the trade in illegally-sourced endangered elephant ivory.

The tusks are usually carved into elaborate ornaments, figurines or into chopsticks for the wealthy elite.

Conservationists believe that the trade is thriving because it is the third such bust Hong Kong customs officers have made in as many months.

I asked a question at the press conference.

I asked an endangered species protection officer from the Hong Kong Agricultural and Fisheries and Conservation Department if there were any plans for the government to burn their stockpiles as a kind of publicity stunt, but also to ensure that none of the seized ivory would find it's way back onto the black market.

They said they had no plans to do so, but may consider it.

Let's hope so.


Hong Kong Shark Fin Roof Top - Day Three

Today there were less fins than yesterday. But the amount was still staggering.

Guestimate? 9,500 fins (mainly dorsal fins) from around 1,000 sharks.

We found two Chinese mainlanders from Guangzhou working there. Illegal workers breaching their conditions of stay?

There are illegal structures too. For drying the fins.

The building management, security and staff seem friendly enough, if just a little exasperated with all the attention!

Seems like every media organisation in town has paid this roof top a visit.

It's a public area, after all.

I met a worker from a unit on the 20/F, and some guys on the 18/F, all of whom said they are disgusted by the shark fin trade.

It's just a small minority who are the environmental criminals.

I'm now of the opinion that this place has been operating for a very long time, and it's only in the last three days that their activities have come to light.

Rhinos, elephants, tigers. Now sharks. When will it ever end?

I feel disgusted with humanity. These shark fins belong in the ocean, not the rooftop of an industrial building.


Hong Kong Shark Fin Roof Top - Day Two

I went back to the scene of a shark fin environmental catastrophe today.

We estimated 30,000 fins from around 4,000 sharks.

These images were take at Kwong Ga Factory Building, 64 Victoria Road, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong.


A Shark Fin Roof Top in Hong Kong...

The front line in the war against the shark fin trade in Hong Kong has shifted from the sidewalks to the roof tops.

Welcome to yet another oceans catastrophe.

This time it's on the roof top of Kwong Ga Factory Building, 64 Victoria Road, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong, just in case anyone else would like to pay them a visit also. I know Gary Stokes of Sea Shepherd already has. Nice work, Gary!

The theory goes that after being exposed at street level, they have now sought to move their activities out of the public eye to avoid further backlash.

And that means, rooftops.

Seriously, could anyone please explain to me why the Hong Kong government continues to do nothing about this problem?

These ignorant people act with utter impunity to the ongoing crisis in the world's oceans.

I've seen photos like this in Taiwan, but this is a dubious first for supposedly civilized Hong Kong, Asia's World City.

Quick disclaimer. The above photo is someone else's. It was the original photo that popped up on Facebook yesterday, taken by someone who was paying that industrial building a visit for other reasons, and who would prefer to remain anonymous.

Finally, here's a quick map to show how this factory building fits into the grander scheme of things.

It's a slick operation. Straight off the boat and into the warehouse. A minimal journey time on land. Once the fins arrive onto the wharf by sea, it's a quick and easy journey through the gates of 'China Merchants Wharf' (a private, not Marine Department, wharf by the way), and into the warehouse literally across the road.

The question is, where are these 'wet' shark fins coming from? What is the exact chain of custody? Somebody needs to do some digging. What can we do to stop this?


A Hong Kong Shark Fin Restaurant Gets A Visit...

Today saw a protest against the 'Fu Sing Shark Fin Seafood Restaurant' in Hong Kong.

The restaurant was singled out for shamelessly advertising their environmentally destructive dish in huge letters on a billboard outside.

Kudos to the girls at Hong Kong Shark Foundation for pulling it off.

HKSF dislike cruelty! HKSF dislike unsustainabilty!

After protesting outside the restaurant, the activists moved inside.

It took all of thirty seconds...

... before security arrived.

They got chucked out really quickly.

A lot of local media covered the protest, which was great.

Security freaking out!

Did you know that scientists estimate that the fins of between 26 and 73 million sharks are traded on an annual basis? Solely in Hong Kong, this accounts for about 50% of global imports.

It's a fact that according to a 2010 survey by the United Nations International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 143 out of a total of 430 shark species are listed as globally threatened, and 54% are at high risk of extinction now or in the near future.

The consensus in the scientific community is that this is being driven by overfishing - and of course the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup.


Philippine Fishermen, Hazardous Compressor Diving...

Every so often in the lifetime of a photographer, something comes along that is so truly awesome to shoot.

Welcome to the crazy, dangerous world of Philippine compressor diving.

Breathing through just a thin plastic air hose connected to a rusty air compressor on the boat above them, these fishermen dive down deep to 20m, 30m, sometimes 40m. Known in Tagalog as 'Pa-aling', this stripped down method of diving completely does away with regulators, spare regulators and mouthpieces.

Often exploited by their employers, workers suffer harsh work conditions, low pay, and non-existent safety standards. Injuries, and death are common.

The most usual cause of death is from decompression illness, or DCI.

Otherwise known as 'the bends', this arises when a diver ascends too fast.

Herding the skipjack tuna in the net, 'Pa-aling' is recognized as one of the most dangerous methods of fishing.

More than 200 nautical miles from land, and far from any decompression chambers or hospitals, these fishermen often stay at sea for months at a time.

For those who don't die, limb paralysis and migraines are common.

If something goes wrong with the hoses, such as a kink, leak or break, it's curtains.

Obviously the rusty compressor must never be allowed to break down or run out of gas.

Not withstanding the human rights and labour rights violations inherent in 'Pa-aling diving, this lethal way of fishing is a major contributor to the tuna overfishing crisis in the Philippines. Purse seine fishing boats from the southern city of General Santos are now fishing further afield. They fish in international waters now, as the seas around the Philippines are already overfished. And because this all takes place in on the 'high seas', i.e. no man's land, there's nothing anybody, government, or organization can do.

To gather these images I was spent a month on a boat with Greenpeace who are advocating a network of marine reserves to be established in four high seas pockets of international waters, and for these zones to be declared off-limits to fishing. The more I see of this kind of thing, the more it reinforces my belief that business interests are unfortunately winning the battle for the control of our lives and our natural environment.


Taiwan's Sacrificial Pigs & Goats...

From time to time in a photographer's career, morbid, fascinating subjects pop up. Ladies and gentlemen, boys & girls, please meet the sacrificial pigs and goats of the Biyun Temple on Xiao Liu Qiu island, Taiwan!

Temple offerings to the Gods...


Giant Jellyfish Blooming in South Korea...

Two weeks ago I was in South Korea. I had the opportunity of photographing giant jellyfish in the East Sea, off the coast of Ulsan and Pohang.

These huge jellyfish are over one metre wide.

And that's without the stinging tentacles.

According to Korean marine conservationists and scientists, these enormous jellies are blooming in the seas around the Korean peninsula as the oceans acidify due to the effects of climate change.

Bio-diversity loss is also believed to be causing jellyfish numbers to multiply.


But beautiful all the same...


Cathay Pacific Stops Trafficking Shark Fin!

Great news today from Cathay Pacific! This from a leaked internal memo...

CX (Cathay Pacific) to ban shipments of unsustainable sharks and shark-related products

News out 04 Sep 2012

As part of the Sustainable Development Strategy, Cathay Pacific has a policy on sustainable seafood which prohibits the consumption of shark and shark fin at company events and from being served inflight.

Today (4 September) the airline has taken the decision to stop shipments of unsustainably sourced sharks and shark-related products.  This means that, effective immediately, CX will not enter into any new contracts in this regard, unless it can be demonstrated that such products are derived from sustainable sources and can be independently verified through initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).   

The airline has decided to do this on the basis that there is very compelling scientific evidence to support that this is the right thing to do, given CX’s strong commitment to sustainability. 

Specifically, due to the vulnerable nature of sharks, their rapidly declining population and the impacts of overfishing for their parts and products, the carriage of these is inconsistent with the airline’s mission of being a socially and environmentally responsible company.

Cathay Pacific Cargo and the Environmental Affairs team have been working very hard on this issue and have established an advisory group that includes respected NGOs to review, from a scientific perspective, the current policy. 

The new policy will be implemented through notifications to shippers, new procedures and training for CX staff.  The airline estimates it will take approximately three months to make the transition, although work will be done as quickly as possible.  



A Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Open Day in Hong Kong...

Here's how the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) win the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people...


Pepper Spray & Protests, Fifteen Years Since The Hong Kong Handover...


Hong Kong Shark Fin Protesters Target Chief Executive-elect CY Leung

Today marks the day that Hong Kong saw its second ever protest against shark finning.

The first was by Shark Rescue in 2009.

The kids were out in force today.

The protest was orgainzed by Hong Kong Shark Foundation.

After the rain, we had some nice light.

This little guy was really indignant! Full of passion!

The obligatory protest 'top shot'.

The protest passes the office of ADM Capital Foundation.

The demonstrators were targeting the incoming administration of CY Leung, Chief Executive-elect Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Shark Foundation are calling for him to take an active stand on the issue of shark fin by publicly removing it from all official Hong Kong government functions after he takes office on 01 July 2012.

There was laughter, but anger and outrage too.

A representative from the Government (R) accepts a petition to CY Leung.

The inevitable group photo.

Some kids from the American International School staged in impromptu 'plankmob'.

The weather was hot and steamy, so lying down on the tarmac all sweaty was probably not much fun.

I heard more than a few of those soft kids moaning about that!

A colourful scene outside the gates to Chief Executive-elect CY Leung's office at the Central Government Offices.

It was great to see the Civic Party in attendance.

Let's see if CY Leung includes shark fin in his first policy address in September...

The guy is a complete unkown, so who knows. Fingers crossed, eh?


A Portrait of the Western Pacific Ocean - Industrial Fishing and Natural History.

What follows is a monster blog post, a random potpourri of photos that I took in the Western Pacific with Greenpeace late last year, but have been too busy to upload until now. The broad aim of the trip on was to gather data on, and images of, the destructive industrial fishing methods used by international fishing corporations. A particular focus was on the insidious use of 'Fish Aggregating Devices', or FADs.  Also documented was a pristine coral reef in Palau. The below images are placed in the rough chronological order that I took them.

~ # ~ # ~

These pictures are from a hair-raising dive I did INSIDE a purse seine net that was targeting tuna fish, as the net closed in around me.

The photos above were taken as the net drew in tight. The pictures below were taken when the net was still 500m wide, showing the skipjack tuna still schooling. The visibility was not so good due to the plankton the fish were chasing.

Fishermen on board the purse seine fishing vessel scour the sea's surface for signs of schooling tuna. They look for birds feeding on the fish as well as frothy water.

A helicopter pilot takes a break from spotting schools of tuna from the air.

Fluorescent green dye is deployed to scare the tuna from escaping through the open side of the net as it is being set.

For the same reason, fishermen make crazy circles in high speed craft with powerful outboard motors to scare and confuse the tuna from escaping.

After the net is set around the tuna, workers winch it back on board.

This action closes the net around the fish.

This is what industrial fishing looks like.

The fish don't have a chance.

Tons and tons of tuna are hauled on board.

This is where canned tuna comes from.

The Pacific Ocean as seen from the air is beautiful place.

On board a Taiwanese fishing boat. It seems new regulations in Taiwan now mean that the whole body of a shark must be landed with its fins.

Some progress at least, but still, the freezer of this fishing boat was over half filled with shark, mostly oceanic white tip, even though they were supposed to be targeting tuna.

A fin whale as seen from a helicopter.

A Chinese long-line fishing boat with its 'end-of-the-line' buoy and radio beacon.

The same Chinese boat being paid a visit by a pilot whale.

'Sik fan' time for the workers.

Bycatch is a big problem.

Especially for this ray.

The national flag of the People's Republic of China.

The captain and crew.

A silky shark in deep trouble.

It would have been finned for sure if I hadn't been taking pictures.

The Chinese employ cheap labour from the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

Sailing into a storm.

A log makes a natural fish aggregating device (FAD), which teams with marine life.

Easy instructions on how to make a Taiwanese FAD. Get a broken plastic chair, some old fishing nets, ropes, a few plastic bags, some canvas rice bags, three or four bamboo sticks, and any other random junk you can lay your hands on. Then cobble it all together any which way you can. Finally chuck it overboard to attract tuna, sharks, turtles, and any other kind of marine life you can imagine. Easy!

Floating steel industrial FADs attract bird life. This is a gannet, or boobie, as the Americans like to call them, took flight as I approached to get this shot.

Right under the FAD, marine life puts on an extraordinary show. Silky sharks chase schools of fish.

FADs pose an extraordinary danger to the marine environment, and, quite rightly so, Greenpeace are seeking a total ban on their use by the fishing industry.

So from the deep, to the air. A pirate fishing operation is seen from 3,000 feet high.

An illegal purse seiner from the Philippines loads skipjack tuna onto an illegal cold storage vessel from Indonesia.

Neither boat were permitted to be fishing in international waters, but were doing so in broad daylight, and with impunity.

Greenpeace deployed a couple of rigid inflatable boats to go and paint the word 'PIRATE?' on the side of the hull of the illegal boats.

A waste of fish.

Turtle on a FAD.

Another hair-raising dive. This time in two knots of current in a storm. Hanging on to a rope for dear life, I shot this Greenpeace diver removing a FAD.

The strobe switched off makes the picture look more 'Ninja'-style!

The FAD was illegally positioned in international waters, so its owner has no recourse for legal action against Greenpeace whatsoever!

Arrival in Palau, passing thorugh a narrow channel in the treacherous reef.

Time to go diving on the Ngemelis reef.

Schooling jacks in bad weather.

Clown fish.

Then it was back to the blue. This time on a joint patrol in Palau territorial waters with the marine enforcement division of the Palau police.

Here's an illegal Philippine 'mother ship' outrigger, fishing illegally in Palau waters.

Luckily for them, they got away as a far juicier target appeared on the horizon.

A Taiwanese long-liner shark finning in Palau waters, in defiance of Palau's status since 2009 as a global 'shark sanctuary'.

A GPS unit duly recorded the position of the criminal vessel.

I recorded the incriminating evidence with a Canon 300mm f2.8 lense.

Spot the bag of shark fin, the finned shark body in the background, and the panicked look of guilt on the workers faces.

But soon it was business as usual, this time hauling a beautiful sailfish on board and hacking it to death. Sailfish doesn't even taste that good.

But my photos were good enough evidence for the Palau police to arrest the Taiwanese boat and its crew.

The boat was eventually impounded back in the port of Palau, and in February the owner was hit with a fine.

A successful example of an environmental NGO operating with a 'big stick'!

Then it was back to Palau again to continue documenting the pristine Ngemelis coral reef.

Manta ray.

A feathertail ray.

Manta ray.

Schooling jacks.

A red snapper and manta ray.

A school of red snapper.

Schooling jacks.

Schooling jacks and feathertail ray.

A manta ray with a sea cucumber.

A trevally tries his luck with a school of jacks.

White tip reef sharks.

Schooling jacks.

Reef sharks.

A really tiny mandarin fish.

A sponge.

A shallow coral reef.

Trumpet fish.

Yellowtail blue snapper and sergeant majors.

Giant clams.

Large bivalve.

I don't remember successfully ID-ing these fish. If anyone knows what species they are, I'd love to know!

I concluded my trip at the delightfully esoteric Ongeim'l Tketau, or 'jellyfish lake'.

Around the edge of the lake was equally enchanting, with its wide array of brightly-coloured soft corals and sponges.

The delicate beauty of a floating seed pod...


Hong Kong Hosts Pole-Dancing Championships 2012

And now for something completely different.


Mother's Choice

Recently I was asked to shoot some pictures for Mother's Choice, a Hong Kong charity.

Mother's Choice is a 25 year old Hong Kong charity that provides care for Hong Kong-born babies and children seeking adoption.

They also provide care and support to single, young women facing crisis pregnancies, and their families.

Around 350 volunteers of all different nationalities take turns in caring for the babies and children.

Part of the brief was that I was not allowed to depict any of the childrens' faces, to ensure their privacy.

Last year 48 children left the centre for adoption.

However 12 children with special needs are still waiting to be adopted overseas.

Baby clothes are donated.

At some point, I would like to go to the centre for young girls to take photos there too.

Click here to donate to Mother's Choice.


Silky Sharks in the Pacific Ocean

After reporting on the horrors of shark finning for so long, it's great to get out to the blue waters of the Pacific ocean to shoot some beauty images of live sharks, for a change.

These are silky sharks that like to hang about near industrial 'fish aggregating devices', or FADs, on the high seas of the Pacific ocean.

The fish that swim alongside them are rainbow runners.

Silkys like to swim near the surface.

I found them to be gentle, curious and strangely canine-like in their behaviour.

Swimming near a FAD is not a good place for a shark to be.

Coming to a bowl of soup at a Chinese restaurant near you soon!


Let's Occupy Oceans! A Guest Blog for Greenpeace...

Below is my un-edited guest blog that I did for Greenpeace. Its 'harmonized' version can be seen on the Greenpeace site, here.

Blogpost by Alex Hofford, photographer on board the 'MY Esperanza', Defending our Pacific ship tour 2011.

© Greenpeace / Alex Hofford Crew members of the 'Jing Lu Yuan No005' are seen hurriedly stuffing dried shark fins into bags and rushing below deck to remove them from view.

Currently I’m on assignment for Greenpeace as the photographer on board the ‘MY Esperanza’ as part of the ‘Defending the Pacific‘ tour 2011. I arrived at the ship from my adopted home, Hong Kong, about two weeks ago, expecting the worst. Having done two previous ship tours in 2006 and 2009, I knew well that things can get dirty and bloody out here in the Pacific on a Greenpeace oceans campaign. And that’s not just the politics of the fishing industry. However nothing could prepare me for what I have seen this week.

© Greenpeace / Alex Hofford A shortfin mako shark is hacked to death on board the mainland Chinese longline fishing vessel 'Jing Lu Yuan No005'.

On Monday, along with a group of activists from Greenpeace, I boarded a small Taiwanese long line fishing vessel, the ‘Ming Maan Shyang No20′ which was fishing in the international waters bordering Micronesia. The boat was ostensibly targeting tuna, but the freezer was more than 51% full of sharks. Included in the catch was an oceanic white tip shark, which, according to the United Nations (UN) International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ‘Red List of Threatened Species’ is listed as ‘vulnerable‘. It is incredible to think that 51% of their cold storage was being used up for so-called ‘bycatch’, with even threatened species listed in their catch logs.

Worker welfare was on my mind too, as the Philippine and Indonesian crew members were keen to show me their painful calloused hands, injured by handling industrial fishing gear with little protection. They also showed me their deformed toe-nails, damaged from endless weeks of wearing gum boots sloshing with sea water inside. It’s common practice for the richer distant water fishing nations like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to use impoverished labour from the poor countries of Asia and the the Pacific region. Their own citizens would never put up with the terrible working conditions endured by the workers that I have encountered this week from developing nations like Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vanuatu.

As seen through the prism of the global Occupy movement, it has been with this political dynamic in mind that I have seen how the rich fishing corporations of the distant water fishing nations represent the 1%, and how these workers earning pittance wages represent the 99%.

With that in mind I set off the next day to document a second long line fishing vessel, this time from China. It was the turn of the ‘Jin Lu Yuan No005′ to get an early morning surprise visit from Greenpeace, but this time it would be by helicopter. Upon arrival, I managed to photograph the crew hurriedly stuffing dried shark fins into bags and rushing below deck to remove them from our view. Something tells me they had a guilty conscience. Later that day I returned to the ‘Jin Lu Yuan No005′ to board it along with some Greenpeace activists. The captain denied all knowledge of our early morning encounter. Not only did he refuse to show me the bags of shark fin that he had removed from the roof earlier in the day, but he had the gall to counter that the crew had eaten it all for lunch. Incredulous, and knowing that I had encountered the brick wall that I know so well from other fisheries investigations in China, I spent the remaining time on board his vessel bearing witness to scenes of industrial brutality and butchery.

This included the demise of a mature mako shark that had probably taken thirty or so years to reach adulthood. If Greenpeace had not been present on board, it would for sure have had it’s fin sliced off. But instead the Chinese captain made it clear over the PA system of the boat to the poor crew member from the small Pacific nation of Vanuatu that he should not slice off the fins off the shark whilst we were around. Instead the worker from Vanuatu was instructed to just cut off the shark’s head, slice it’s body open to extract the guts, then chuck it into the ship freezer.

All for what? A bowl of soup in Mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan?

At the root cause of shark finning lies greed, consumerism and the current, somewhat creaky, economic model of global capitalism.

For many Chinese that climb out of poverty into the middle class, a shark fin dinner for friends and family is de rigeur. And let’s not forget that shark fin was traditionally a dish reserved for the 1%. Or that as the scarcity of sharks fin increases, so does its price, and ironically, its desirability. I believe that the shark fin issue has become the ‘elephant in the room’ in the wider arena of fisheries issues in the Asia Pacific region, since it has become increasingly clear that longline fishing boats are now targeting sharks as well as tuna.

Of course there is no proof. The industry is murky, catch logs can be fudged, and organized crime and corruption are never far away. But from anecdotal evidence gathered over the years by Greenpeace, it would certainly seem that sharks, not tuna are indeed the new target species. Take for example the shocking photos seen on my fellow co-author and photographer Paul Hilton’s blog, which show that the shark fin industry in Taiwan is not only alive and well, but positively thriving. Runaway seafood consumption patterns around the world, especially in Mainland China, are clearly out of control – and this is driving sharks to the brink of extinction. The other theory is that the boats are now targeting sharks as stocks of tuna have already been seriously depleted. It’s hard to say, but in all likelihood it is probably a combination of both factors.

This is why I have been trying to fuse in people’s minds the links between the current ‘Occupy’ movement of political protests that are sweeping the globe, and the environmental destruction that is going on daily in our oceans. At any given moment, somewhere in the Pacific ocean, thousands of purse seiners with highly destructive hi-tech fish aggregating devices, or FADs, are scooping out untold amounts of skipjack and yellowfin tuna to fill the daily sandwiches of the lunchtime office crowds in the West. And thousands of longline fishing vessels, operating with hundreds of thousands of miles of strong plastic lines and millions of hooks, are hunting twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year in oceans around the world so that consumers in countless restaurants in Asia can dip bite size chunks of yellowfin and bigeye tuna into wasabi and soya sauce mixes.

So who profits from this greed? Certainly not the Pacific Islanders, the 99%, most of whom are steeped in poverty despite their various governments granting fishing licenses to the distant water fishing nations of Asia. Take Papua New Guinea as an example, where the Greenpeace ship which I am aboard has just come from. Its capital Port Moresby is famous for rampant poverty, car-jackings, rape, murder, muggings and very poor healthcare. Except for the exploited fishermen who work on board the boats and in its foreign-owned tuna canneries, the vast majority of the people of Papua New Guinea are not seeing the economic benefits of a foreign fishing industry running amok in its own territorial waters.

Its obvious to me that the root causes of the current crisis in our oceans are indeed the same root causes that the Occupy movement is protesting against. From Cairo to New York, Kuwait to Hong Kong, ordinary people are waking up politically to the awareness that global capitalism, corrupt politicians, corporate greed and environmental destruction are holding them back from a better life. So it is for the protesters outside the stock exchange in London, so it is for the voiceless tunas and sharks of the world’s oceans.

But there has been some progress on the legislative side to ban the sale and possession of shark fin – especially in the United States. And even though Taiwan enacted its own shark fin law earlier this year which binds fishing companies to land the whole shark along with the fins, like on the ‘Ming Maan Shyang No20′ that I boarded on Monday, it unfortunately does not go far enough. It’s a common misconception that if the whole shark is landed and the meat of the body is consumed as food, that this is somehow OK. At the current rate of depletion, it makes no difference whether or not the whole body is used. Industrial fishing is wiping out the sharks faster than they can reproduce. Body or fin alone, the practice is unsustainable and that’s the problem. What’s needed are for the governments of Asia to be bold and enact legislation to ban the sale and possession of shark fin firmly modeled on the bold laws signed this year by the US states of Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and California.

© Greenpeace / Alex Hofford 'Sharkette' activists from Hong Kong Shark Foundation handing out flyers in Hong Kong's busy Mong Kok district.

I’ve been personally involved in shark conservation since 2006. First with the ‘Man & Shark‘ project and ongoing shark fin investigations in the region, then more recently with a newer NGO, the Hong Kong Shark Foundation. With some success for over five years now, we have been trying to stem the demand for shark fin in Hong Kong and China. It’s a tough gig, but we try to win over school kids, university students and the general public. We also target the Hong Kong and China governments, industry groups, chambers of commerce, hotels, restaurants and other NGOs to support us. With our books, our short films, indy band gigs,petitions, shark flash-mobs, shark freeze-mobs and shark plank-mobs, we try to win over the souls of Chinese everywhere. But what Greenpeace is doing in the Pacific is of equal importance, because instead of targeting demand, the presence of Greenpeace in the Western and Central Pacific ocean is critical to ensure that the supply side does not collapse. No one is out here to monitor the environmental crimes being committed on a daily basis, in the huge expanses of blue desert that is the Pacific ocean. Only Greenpeace is doing that. Of the Pacific island nations that have a patrol boat, fuel is often an issue, as are the huge distances and other logistical problems.

Scientists have pointed to a tipping point for sharks, with population numbers of some species crashing below 90% in some cases. Greenpeace is not against fishing per se, but they are campaigning for the establishment of a network of marine reserves and an end to overfishing. And that means an end to unlicensed, unregulated and illegal fishing operations in the Pacific.

Sustainability is key, for it’s a fact that shark finning and shark fisheries are unsustainable. It’s a common fear in the scientific community that if we allow the oceans to be raped and pillaged at current rates, it is conceivable that the delicate balance of the oceans could be thrown out of kilter forever. This would have potentially devastating consequences for at least 20% of humanity that live in poor coastal areas, for whom fish is their main source of protein.

It all boils down to the choice between sustainability (99%) or corporate greed (1%).

My message to the world is ‘Let’s Occupy Oceans!’

@alexhofford #occupyoceans

© Greenpeace / Alex Hofford A silky shark swims next to a fish aggregation device, or FAD, belonging to the 'Zhong Tai No2' fishing vessel from China.


Papua New Guinea, China and the Pacific...

Just over two weeks ago I arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, or, as the locals like to call it, PNG.

The city rates number 130 on an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) 2004 list of the '130 Worst Places To Live On Earth'.

OK, old data, but you get the point. Car-jackings, rape, murder, muggings, poverty, poor healthcare, Port Moresby has them all - and in abundance too.

But I rather like the place. Despite the various NGO 'security protocols' put in place to prevent me from roaming the city to get some street scenes, I did manage to squeeze out this handful of pix taken 'shot gun-style' from a car passenger window.

I was under strict curfew - completely forbidden to leave 'the compound' unaccompanied for any reason, and under any circumstances.

I didn't argue. Crime here is as bad as they say it is, and car-jackings are rife.

In fact one guy working for the World Bank got car-jacked in his shiny SUV right by the hotel I had been having dinner at the night before. He wound up dead.

Yet Port Moresby has all of that Pacific Island grittiness that I love, but just can't put into words.

The place feels like an Asian Africa, if that makes any sense. The airport was interesting too, in its own way.

Here is Air Niugini's first ever plane - a Douglas DC-3.

But I didn't come here to explore the grittiness of Port Moresby, like this Chinese restaurant shot through the dark-tinted glass of a car window.

I came here to bear witness to environmental crimes being wrought daily in the Pacific. I flew here on assignment to join the Greenpeace ship 'MY Esperanza' which is touring the Pacific as part of their 'Defending the Pacific 2011' tour.

Tribal representatives from the surrounding areas of Port Moresby were more than delighted to welcome Greenpeace to their corrupt and crime-ridden land.

Greenpeace has been sticking up for indigenous rights here for a while now.

In fact the ship had just come back from defending traditional landowners in PNG's Western Province from illegal logging.

See my friend, colleague and fellow Greenpeace photographer Paul Hilton's pix of that campaign, here

One Greenpeace activist told me that triad gangs from Fujian Province in China are getting stuck in, sucking the forests dry of logs and and every other living thing that moves. They are setting up logging camps in the jungle where gambling, karaoke, prostituion and the consumption of endangered species are replacing traditional ways of life. Ways of life that are in harmony with nature, not against her. According to traditional landowners and the local media, in this hidden corner of the world, Chinese logging companies, with a little help from their triad friends, are acting with impunity.

For those readers who can't strain their eyes, the 'Post Courier', ran the photo above with a caption that reads: "Chinese logging ship Fu Tian was pictured loading logs yesterday at the log pond at Drina, West Pomio LLG in East New Britain Province. It is believed the ship has made eight trips out of Papua New Guinea already, despite an order put in place by former acting Prime Minister Sam Abal to stop operating until a commission of enquiry is completed. Picture: JOHN PANGKATANA". (It is interesting to note that the 'Post Courier' is one of two national newspapers in Papua New Guinea. The other one, 'The Nation', is owned by a logging company.)

Ah, China. When will she start behaving like a grown up? So to kick things off, here's a shot of the Chinese embassy in Papua New Guinea. Unsurprising if you know me, I'll be blogging more about China's role in the Pacific later.

And whilst we are on the subject of China - well Hong Kong actually - here's a shot I took of a Hong Kong-registered vessel carrying timber as we left port.

Not content with coming to PNG to rob the country of logs, this vessel is giving the locals a taste of good old Hong Kong-style marine air pollution. If you are going to do a land grab, why not make it a dirty one? This scene would not look out of place in Kwai Chung. And here's a closer crop...

Hong Kong is my adopted home. But at time like this, I sometimes feel ashamed to say so.

More on Greenpeace's PNG illegal logging campaign here.


A Shark Conservation 'Plankmob' Event in Mongkok...

HONG KONG - Marine conservation activists and citizens perform the world's first 'plankmob' event to promote shark protection, Mongkok, Hong Kong, China, 25 September 2011.

A 'plankmob' is a cross between this year's internet craze 'planking', and a 'flashmob'.

According to the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone, which are used to make the infamous luxury dish favoured by Chinese, shark fin soup.

Planking is where individuals lie face down in an unusual position or location and post the photo on the internet. A flashmob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse.

As apex predators at the top of the food chain, sharks play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of our marine ecosystems.

According to the 2010 United Nations International Union of Conservation 'Red List', over one third of all shark species are already threatened, or near threatened, with extinction.

The demand for shark fin soup is largely to blame.

“According to global trade figures, Hong Kong is still shark fin central, but the tide is definitely turning as more and more Hong Kongers realise that shark fin soup comes at a price our oceans cannot afford to pay”, said HKSF's Bertha Lo.


Hysterical Staff Greet Fans At Opening Of Apple's First Store In Hong Kong...

Now I like Apple products as much as the next guy.

But what I saw today at the opening of Apple first store in Hong Kong really made me wonder about what kind of a society we are living in.

Forty years ago they might have been shouting "Long live Chairman Mao!", and waving little red books.

Seventy years ago they might have been shouting fascistic slogans.

But today there are no ideologies left, and many religions, Islam apart, are on the ropes.

So what's left?

Bland, empty consumerism, that's what.

And though that too looks pretty shaky in most markets, it's still a strong force here in Asia. Especially here at the IFC Mall in Hong Kong's Central District.

So that's why today, Apple's geeky Hong Kong staff were instructed to chant the blandest slogan of all: "Apple, IFC! Apple, IFC!, Apple, IFC!".

And it was just the staff. Their incessant yelling designed to create the illusion of mass rapture. In fact, having had very little sleep, all the customers and fans I saw looked too bleary-eyed to shriek about consumer electronics. The 'blue shirts' having been hyped up into such a frenzy by their US superiors, looked like US team-building-meets-the-Red-Guards-meets-the-Hitler-Youth, all on hallucinogens. The collective larynges of the entire staff workforce as a marketing tool. Cheap and clever indeed. In fact the opening itself was not a frenzy as some media are portraying it as. Yes, the fans lined up overnight, but the only people I saw in a shrieking frenzy were the Apple staff. Non-Apple cultists remained calm overall.

Fanboys queued right around the block, as far as the ferry piers.

They waited all along the raised walkway.

And in the finest tradtion of the 'Great Hong Kong MacDonald's Hello Kitty Doll Promotion' of 1998, some slept overnight - waiting up to 36 hours in line.

The first 5,000 suckers to make it through the doors got a free iPhone 5!

No, that's a lie. They got a free... T-shirt.

Now that's what I call capitalism and consumer culture at its best!

See the Youtube clips below to see embarrassing scenes of Apple Hong Kong staff hysteria, (and a little forced American-style 'high-fiving' and bonhomie!).





A Week In Endangered Wildlife Consumption In Hong Kong...

(HONG KONG - Thursday, 01 September 2011)  Here's a Chinese couple who have decided to take a stand against the consumption of endangered species at their wedding. Braving the dark mutterings of their parents and grandparents, Brenda & Ricky did the right thing yesterday, and banished it from their banquet altogether. Well done and congratulations for tying a shark-free knot!

(More about this happy couple will be posted soon at the Hong Kong Shark Foundation website.)



(HONG KONG - Wednesday, 31 August 2011)  But despite the best efforts of 'shark heroes' Brenda and Ricky, the trade is thriving. Here's a school of black tip reef sharks (minus their bodies), drying by the side of the street earlier this week in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district. 



(HONG KONG - Tuesday, 30 August 2011)  And it's not just sharks that are being wiped out. Congratulations to Hong Kong's Customs & Excise Department for intercepting this huge two ton haul of ivory on a ship arrived from Malaysia on Tuesday - 794 pieces in all. According to their spokesman, the smuggled ivory was worth US$13m and was concealed in a shipping container marked, "non-ferrous products for factory use". Well done Hong Kong Customs, keep it up!


The thing is, elephant ivory is listed on C.I.T.E.S.  If only all 440 species of shark were too. Currently, the only three shark species to be listed on C.I.T.E.S. are the great white shark, the basking shark and the whale shark. That leaves around 437 species of shark unprotected, and until they become protected under C.I.T.E.S. too, the Hong Kong Government will continue ignore this thorny issue. Imagine tons and tons of seized shark fin sitting alongside all that illegal ivory in a Customs & Excise warehouses in Hong Kong? That would be the day. But isn't it about time already...? 


Public Gorge on Critically Endangered Bluefin Tuna at the Hong Kong Food Expo

It's that time of year again.

The Japanese company Yashima Shoji Ltd is in town to promote the Mitsubishi conglomerate's huge frozen stockpile of critically endangered bluefin tuna at the Hong Kong Food Expo.

Seemingly unphased by the fact that, according to the IUCN Red List (international Union for the Conservation of Nature), their samples were akin to pieces of sliced panda, these gents seemed either too ignorant or blinded by greed to care.

And so the public gorged themselves on free samples of this utterly beguiling sashimi. Get it while stocks last. At the rate we humans are consuming it, that certainly won't be long. Some estimates say the bluefin tuna has about one year left before extinction.

"But it's so good!", one woman said. I see. So that makes it OK, does it?

Then Gary Stokes, an activist from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society turned up. Who tipped him off? I have absolutley no idea.

A bit of a face off ensued. Security showed up. Tensions rose. A crowd gathered. Sampling stopped. Revenue streams were temporarily disrupted. A PR girl from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council became flusterred. A blockade began.

Seashepherd effectively shut the booth down for the rest of the day. No deals done, no bluefin tuna tasted.

And the pieces of endangered species were carefully removed from the display cabinet and put back in the freezer at the back of the booth. 


Sea Shepherd Conservation Society 1-0 Japanese Marine Environment Gangsters


A Bad Week For Sony, A Bad Week For Us All...

Here's a photo by Reuters photographer Chris Helgren of a Sony warehouse in Enfield which was hit by the riots in London on Monday.

And here are a couple of my pictures of the Sony warehouse in Sendai, Japan, which got hit by the earthquake and tsunami back in March.

And here's a snapshot of the Sony stock price on the New York Stock Exchange since February, courtesy of Yahoo! Finance:-

This one company's destiny can be seen as an example of a wider malaise.

Natural disasters, markets in turmoil, unrest on the streets... where will all end?


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All images and text © Alex Hofford / Image Solutions Ltd. 2011 | Web design in Hong Kong by Ugli © 2011