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Richard Leakey’s call for the wild

Published on Saturday, 07 Mar 2015

The renowned conservationist says Hong Kong’s professionals can make a difference

Hong Kong may be a long way from Africa, but one of the world's leading conservationists believes locals have a role to play by using their professional skills to protect endangered African animals, while taking an active role in tackling wider environmental issues.

Dr Richard Leakey - renowned for his prominent roles in conservation and paleontology - says it makes little difference where people live, because environmental issues concern everyone.

And while banking and finance, law and medicine are often the preferred career choices for Hong Kong professionals, Leakey says regardless of the industry they work in, they can make a difference through making the right choices and thinking about the impact of their personal and professional actions.

For instance, he says, professionals involved with making business decisions can help shape their company corporate social responsibility initiatives to ensure their enterprise operates in an environmentally responsible manner.

Leakey remains a tireless conservation campaigner, despite undergoing two kidney transplants, a liver transplant, and surviving a suspected assassination attempt in 1993, which resulted in the loss of both of his lower legs when the light aircraft he was piloting crashed. "I often ask myself what will happen if nothing is done on behalf of the environment," he says.

Although he left school when he was 16 with modest exam results, he has been awarded a string of honorary doctorates and has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, of which many of the world's most distinguished scientists are a part. He has also authored several best-selling books, including Origins - which popularised paleoanthropology - and wrote the BBC documentary The Making of Mankind.

The 70-year-old Kenyan was in Hong Kong recently to talk about environmental topics, including the impact the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn is having on African elephants and rhinos. During his visit, he made presentations at the Royal Geographical Society and to students at the Victoria Shanghai Academy in Aberdeen. He also met senior government figures to discuss the illicit ivory trade and the handling of the city's stockpile of confiscated ivory.

"Leaders and professionals in whatever fields they choose to work can use their positions to make a positive difference, not only in Hong Kong, but also elsewhere in the world," Leakey says. A good example, he says, is professionals in various business sectors, such as the legal profession, using their skills to push for a complete ban on trading ivory.

Because of its advanced shipping infrastructure, Hong Kong is often linked with the illegal transport of ivory into the mainland, which is the world's largest market for ivory and rhino horn.

In China and other parts of Southeast Asia, a single elephant's tusk weighing 10kg can command more than US$30,000, while rhino horn is selling at US$65,000 a kilogram, more than twice the price of gold.

According to conservation group statistics, more than 30,000 African elephants are poached every year for their ivory, while a rhino is lost every eight hours to poachers. At the same time, on average five African lions a day are being killed by poachers as a replacement for use in traditional Chinese medicine, as tiger numbers in the wild dwindle in Asia.

This is not the first time Leakey has highlighted the urgent need to protect Africa's wildlife. In the late 1980s, he became the first head of the Kenyan Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, established in response to the international uproar over the impact poaching was having on the African elephant population.

Leakey was at the forefront of setting up anti-poaching policing, which drastically reduced the number of elephants being killed in Kenya. It has often been said that if he had not been around at the time, Kenya would probably have lost its entire elephant population.

Leakey says there are a number of compelling reasons why people living in Hong Kong should be concerned about the threat to African wildlife and the environment in general. "It may be a cliché to say we live in a global village, but whether people live in Nairobi, Paris or Hong Kong, we all need to play a part in protecting the environment."

For individuals interested in pursuing a career in conservation, Leakey suggests joining local organisations and concern groups. They should also make use of social media and the internet to learn about environmental topics and join in with debates.

"With the city's world-class education system and global business connections, there is no reason why Hong Kong people cannot link their career choices to conservation and environmental activities," he says.

Leakey also believes Hong Kong companies and individuals have a part to play in addressing problems attributed to climate change. "We cannot continue to pass off environmental issues as someone else's problem," Leakey told students during his presentation to students at the Victoria Shanghai Academy.

"If we don't take better care of our wildlife and the environment, there will be dire consequences for mankind."

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