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Will wild boars enjoy their legal rights one day?


(By Kim McCoy, barrister-at-law and the founder of Hong Kong Animal Law and Protection Organisation)

Wild animals have always been a critical resource for human beings, and wildlife has assumed high economic and cultural significance. Equally, wild animals can be seen as threatening to human beings, be it the source of disease or damage to crops and property. This in itself raises a key question about the responsibilities we have towards wild animals – what should we try to protect? 

It is, of course, to be a balancing exercise of potentially conflicting values including the individual welfare of the animal and the safety and health of the public.

Wildlife have personal liberty; they must make their own way through their individual lives, they are self-directed and by definition, self owned. Their right of place refers to their natural habitats. This right imposes a duty on humans (and particularly Governments) to preserve habitats and where necessary, recreated new habitat suitable for wildlife to live their natural lives i.e., to have the food, water and other resources necessary to sustain their life. However, we have seen a continued trend of wild boars coming into more urbanised area to scavenge, suggesting wild boars have learnt that where there are people, there will be food. The increased frequency of wild boars in urban areas realistically leads to more human-non human interactions and conflicts, many of which we have seen in newspapers recently.

The question is, therefore, whether the shift in policy by the Hong Kong Government to reintroduce “humane termination” of wild boars (having suspended arranging hunting teams in 2017) is considered an illegal killing of animals?  

Wild boars were seen near Aberdeen Reservoir in October last year.

For a strong animal rights (contrast to animal welfare) perspective, the argument is that all human and non-human animals have rights, which mean there are certain things that we may never do to them. In the case of wild animals, this would necessarily include killing, confining, culling, and or interfering with their lives. Nor may we take away the land and or resources that wild animals need to live natural lives. The directive under this perspective would be just to leave wild animals alone and there is no justification to take their lives.

From an animal sentience perspective, dictating that animals are not objects, but are aware of their feelings and emotions. Their lives matter to them and they have the same capacity to feel joy and pleasure, as well as pain and suffering, which all have an impact on the welfare of the animal. This has been given light through in-depth scientific studies on animal cognition and consciousness, culminating with the UK recently introducing the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.  

The conceptualisation of sentience for animals necessarily means that we in Hong Kong (and our Government) should be obligated to safeguard not only the physical well-being of animals but also take into account their feelings. So from an animal welfare/sentience point of view, the killing of the wild boars may be seen to be unacceptable as the methods employed may be likely to cause the wild boar pain and suffering. Other non-lethal methods which protect the welfare of the animal should be considered before “humane termination” should be employed.  

In a paper by Sara Dubois and colleagues in 2017, the authors proposed a list of seven stepwise “principles for ethical wildlife control”: -  
 
1.     Begin, wherever possible, by altering human practices that cause human-wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of co-existence. 
 
2.     Justify that significant harms are being caused to people, property, livelihoods, ecosystems and/or other animals.  
 
3.     Have measurable outcome-based objectives that are clear, achievable, monitored and adaptive. 

4.     Predictably minimize animal welfare harms to the fewest number of animals. 
 
5.     Be informed by community values as well as scientific, technical and practical information.  
 
6.     Integrate into long term systematic management plans 
 
7.     Base decisions on the species of the situation, rather than the negative labels applied to the targeted species (e.g. pest, overabundant). 
 
Living in the Mid-Levels, it is not an uncommon sight to wake up and see the orange FEHD (Food and Environmental Hygiene Department)/Government issued rubbish bins to be knocked over with its contents spilled across the road. The orange bins almost act as a homing beacon for wild boars as they know there is bound to be edible contents found within. It’s understood that the Government had completed field trials with wild boar resistant litter containers in the third quarter of 2020, which have proven to effectively reduce wildlife nuisance. The introduction of these new refuse containers should also be a priority to minimise nuisance caused by the wild boars.

The feeding of wild animals in Hong Kong is prohibited under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, Cap 170 in designated areas. However, the areas (set out in Cap 170C) do not cover many of the areas where wild boars have been sighted. It is clear that the wild boars have been entering more urban areas for the search of food. They have been conditioned from human interactions that where there are humans, there is food. If the area for the prohibition of feeding wild animals was extended, it would demonstrate to the public of Hong Kong that the Government takes this issue seriously and any illegal feeding of animals anywhere will not be tolerated. This feeds also into the need for greater education programmes, necessary to change community attitudes as well as further impress on the myriad of issues when it comes to feeding wildlife, especially wild boars.  

Where there have been prosecutions under Cap 170 for the feeding of wild animals, although the number of convictions is high, the customary sentence imposed on offenders is a fine. This in itself creates a lack of deterrence, and although the majority of the public do not engage in this practice, the consequences of the small number that do are significant. 

Hong Kong still considers animals as “property”, and despite wild boars being a step further removed from companion animals, they still nevertheless have no legal rights. However, we are seeing a tide change when it comes to animals and non-humans and their legal status. Rivers in New Zealand and India have been declared legal entities, Happy the Elephant continues his fight in the USA Courts and Argentinian Courts have held that Cecilia the Chimpanzee has the right to bring habeas corpus. The question is: when will we see a similar trend in Hong Kong? 

Until animals are given legal rights, it is therefore incumbent on humans to continue protecting their welfare to the best of our ability. It is important to remember that despite not have any legal recognition, science and research has shown that human and non-human animals are extremely similar in their capability to feel positive and negative emotions, all of which impact significantly on their welfare. An animal can have a better or worse welfare; this exists regardless of the status of the animals in either ethics or law.